Let's Keep Talking

By Lynn Haber  |  Posted 2007-09-12 Email Print this article Print
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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A solution provider and partners help Beltrami County bolster internal communications.

As the government building campus of Beltrami County in northern Minnesota grew in recent years, so did the county's IT and communications needs. So, three years ago, the county embarked on an ambitious modernization project, calling on solution provider Morris Electronics for the work.

Morris Electronics, of Morris, Minn., tapped partners such as Tech Data and Cisco Systems for help. The project's first phase, which called for creating a single network infrastructure for various county departments, has reached completion. The second phase, involving the installation of a wireless network, is under way.

Like many smaller counties throughout the United States, Beltrami, with a population of 43,000, had traditional voice and data networks. But even small counties have big IT needs, and what worked for Beltrami and its employees just a few years ago was starting to fall short of meeting their growing needs for things such as e-mail, video links and telephone service. "For starters, Beltrami needed to tie together its networks to be able to share common resources," said Shawn Larsen, president of Morris Electronics.

New infrastructure located in Beltrami's largest city, Bemidji, Beltrami's county government campus has eight buildings that house typical government entities such as administration, a community service center, law enforcement, a jail, a judicial center, highway and natural resource management.

With the construction of a judicial building and an administration building, which houses departments such as motor vehicles, planning and zoning, and IT, Beltrami County reached a turning point. Officials concluded the county needed better interdepartmental communications. "Ultimately, Beltrami wanted to build a network road map that would not only consolidate its separate networks but would expand to include VOIP [voice over IP], video, Wi-Fi and mobile data for law enforcement," said Larsen.

The county's modernization journey began with the goal of establishing communications between the law enforcement IT network and the network used by the rest of the county's departments.

"We needed our law enforcement department to be able to talk to our accounting system, for example, or to the attorney's office in order to transfer data relevant to cases they may be working on," said Ron Pula, the county's MIS director.

But connecting the two networks required more than technical know-how. States often have specific requirements for the transmission of sensitive data across networks. Beltrami County also is required to have a separate network for law enforcement officers to talk to state officials. So, high on the county's list of criteria for finding a solutions partner was an understanding of how data from the county is fed to the state.

"We needed a partner with a strong background working within the government of Minnesota," Pula said. Pula also wanted a solutions partner well-versed in Cisco products. A satisfied Cisco customer for many years, Pula believed it was in the county's best interest to continue with the San Jose, Calif., vendor for compatibility and support.

As a member of the Minnesota Counties Computer Cooperative, a group of IT professionals from the state's 49 counties, Pula tapped into the network and was referred to Morris Electronics. "Shawn [Larsen] is well-known in Minnesota and works with a lot of counties. He has their trust," said Charlie Mitchell, account manager, Minnesota public sector, at Cisco. For Larsen, building a long-term relationship with a customer is critical.

"When I met Ron [Pula], the first thing we did was an assessment, and we discussed what he wanted to accomplish," Larsen said. "Then I sketched a plan that addressed the county's immediate needs but also segues to its future concerns."

Morris Electronics' initial task involved laying the building blocks to implement enterprise-class switching. Working on a time-plus-materials contract, the project's first phase, putting in the foundation, took about a month to complete at a cost of about $100,000.

Rather than do a forklift implementation, Larsen leveraged existing county equipment, such as a Cisco Catalyst 4006 Switch, a couple of Nortel switches and VLANs (virtual LANs) to upgrade the network infrastructure.

As a Tech Data select partner, Morris Electronics tapped the distributor to review the design Larsen had in mind for Beltrami County. "I use Tech Data as our safety net," Larsen said. "I want to make sure I don't miss anything."

Morris Electronics installed a Catalyst 4500 48PT 10/100/1000 POE (power over Ethernet) blade into the county's Cisco 4006 core switch, among other equipment. "We also linked a couple of Cisco Pix 515 firewalls and a 506E, running as a firewall for law enforcement, into the core switch with Layer 2 and Layer 3 routing," Larsen said.

Essentially, Larsen configured the state network to pass through the county's hardware, such as the Cisco 4006, and distribute the appropriate traffic to the appropriate courts. At this point, voice and QOS (quality of service) were also introduced into the network. Today, the county runs VOIP across multiple Cisco switches and also uses a Mitel VOIP.

According to Pula, having a single network infrastructure allows the county to use the same phone system across buildings, standardize features for users and reduce overall operating costs. "Law enforcement, for example, which includes the sheriff's department and police department, can collaborate for e-mail, phone and servers," he said.

The county also can use its network to distribute video anywhere within its campus, using the inherent QOS features in the Cisco switches. Previously, video was hard-cabled to the back of some state-owned equipment. The county uses video for conferencing, group training and judicial activities.

Next up with the core network infrastructure in place in mid-2006, it was time to start Phase 2—wireless networking.

Larsen is installing a wireless network on top of the existing physical infrastructure, giving county employees, as well as citizens who use the public buildings for meetings and presentations, mobile access for workstations, laptops or PDAs. The wireless infrastructure also enables VOIP LAN, extending the range of cordless phones from a few feet to anywhere within the 802.11 wireless infrastructure.

The initial rollout targets three county buildings: the administration, customer service and human services, and law enforcement facilities. Additional buildings will be included this fall. The end plan is to enable for Wi-Fi all county buildings and the ground between the buildings, including parking lots, over multiple city blocks.

Morris Electronics, Cisco's Mitchell and Pula were all involved in the design of the wireless network. "Larsen came up with the initial design," Mitchell said. "Cisco looked at the configuration and made some recommendations. We put together a road map that would allow the customer to see beyond two months or two years."

The plan calls for a controller-based architecture to centralize management of the access points and to manage the network traffic, as opposed to managing individual access points. "Wi-Fi in the new judicial building raises particular security concerns," said Larsen. "We're heightening perimeter testing and encryption. But we expect the controller-based system to meet and exceed our expectations."

Initial Wi-Fi rollout includes 50 access points, increasing to about 80 when the project is completed. "Beltrami is an anomaly among county governments," Larsen said. "They're taking the time to plan and invest in infrastructure."

One of the first counties in northern Minnesota to tackle mobile wireless technology, Beltrami wants to outfit its 48 police squad cars with laptop computers. According to Larsen, the county ventured into mobile wireless about five years ago using radio telemetry-based technology, which was in its infancy and was costly. He was not involved with that project.

"Today, the police don't have laptops to run license plates or reports," Pula said. "They have to bring information back to the station to do what they need to do."

The solution provider's strategy is to lay a foundation for cellular wireless, initiate mobility in a percentage of the squad cars and cultivate champions for the technology. "It's important that everyone understand what the technology can do and how it performs," Pula said.

This is the same strategy Larsen used in Minnesota's Douglas County. "I started them with two laptops that they used for six months," he said. "I let the excitement grow, worked out any issues, and this year they rolled out a full deployment."

Pula said the county is learning as it grows its technology infrastructure. The county's IT department is active in all rollouts and takes over management of the technology.

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