Nick Crispino, Information Systems Manager for Newburgh, N.Y., can now help more city employees at a faster pace thanks to virtual desktop infrastructure.

Sep 23 2021

Cities Turn to Remote Access Tools to Support the Business of Government

Local governments find that maintaining continuity of operations requires infrastructure upgrades.

Newburgh, N.Y, is a city of 30,000 on the Hudson River. It has approximately 330 city employees and an IT department of only two people.

Nick Crispino, information systems manager, recalls that when a tornado impacted the city in 2018, officials sought to stand up an emergency operations center and wanted 10 laptops configured for use there overnight. But with very little staff support, moving with that speed wasn’t possible, he says.

With that incident in mind, Crispino began to think about setting up virtual desktop infrastructure. In 2019, he worked with Dell EMC to update the city’s server infrastructure, and the city also upgraded its network firewalls and security standards. When the pandemic hit in 2020, Crispino worked with CDW•G on an implementation of VMware Horizon to support remote work by city staff.

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted city and county IT departments to accelerate the adoption of digital services, and it has tested their ability to provide continuity of services over an extended period. Thanks to infrastructure modernization, many local governments have maintained the business of government while also ensuring its availability to citizens. Cities like Newburgh are poised to expand digitally.

“Local governments scrambled to maintain programs and services while shelter-in-place and social distancing requirements went into effect,” says Byron Katsuyama, a public policy and management consultant with Municipal Research and Services Center, a nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State.

“New online services have included ramped-up online service portals, digital payments, electronic signatures, digital plan review, remote meetings, remote work, virtual hearings and many more. Other challenges for sustaining the new level of digital services include refining remote work, rethinking public meetings, and addressing both cybersecurity needs and the digital divide,” he says.

Newburgh Makes Strides to Support Remote Work

Supporting a remote workforce in a small jurisdiction such as Newburgh initially proved daunting, but with the VMware deployment, Crispino has seen vast improvement in his ability to support remote workers and the police department’s mobile requirements.

“Before, when I was trying to configure new devices, it would be on my workbench for at least four to five hours before going out to the end user,” he says. “Now, new devices hit my office for all of 10 minutes while I set it up and hand it over to you.”

VMware Horizon allows Newburgh’s IT team to deploy and scale virtual desktops and apps with rapid provisioning, automation and simplified management.

“The employees had previously been using Remote Desktop Protocol or a service like LogMeIn, and you do not get the same quality of service through that,” Crispino says. “With VMware, they have a more unified service and are able to have their desktop setup fully operational at home on whichever device they want. Now, when employees ask me for help getting set up, I can say yes more often.”

Nick Crispino
Now, when employees ask me for help getting set up, I can say yes more often.”

Nick Crispino Information Systems Manager, Newburgh, N.Y.

Crispino says for small departments like his, the upfront investment put into upgrading infrastructure may sound ­expensive or seem like a lot of effort. 

“But in the grand scheme of things, you will be saving copious amounts of time for yourself,” he says. “Especially during the ­pandemic situation, we could have spent all our time for two weeks ­rolling out 100 laptops. The virtual desktop infrastructure really saved time and effort in preparing everyone.”

While the virtual desktop infrastructure enables employees to work remotely today, it also helps the city be prepared for any future emergency. “I think back to that tornado emergency operations center we wanted to set up quickly. We’re now better prepared to do all that,” Crispino says. “If they came to me now and asked me to get 10 computers set up by the end of the day, I would say OK, no problem. I could quickly spin up 10 computers and get them deployed.”

RELATED: How did agencies move quickly to support telework amid the pandemic? 

San Antonio Strengthens Continuity of Operations 

Before the pandemic, the city of San Antonio had begun to offer employees remote access, but it could only ­handle about 50 active ­connections at one time. John Rodriguez, assistant IT director for infrastructure and operations, says partnerships with Cisco and VMware were critical to ramping up when the pandemic struck in 2020.

“We built out our VPN environment from a site that can handle only about 100 VPN users to one that can handle 10,000,” Rodriguez says. “Every year, we have about $5 million in budget to replace legacy equipment. Last year, as we were getting ready to spend that budget, Cisco gave us a ­fantastic deal: an additional 32 high-end chassis servers with a terabyte of memory. Within about five weeks, we also expanded into a new VMware Workspace environment.”

The city’s IT department set up a separate 10-person team dedicated to work-from-home issues. This team, comprising experts in VPN, VMware Workspace ONE, e-mail and business applications, made a huge difference in resolving problems and improving ­training material.

“The learning curve for a lot of ­people working from home was not very significant,” Rodriguez says. “However, for those people who did need assistance, we were able to provide it fairly quickly and get them running.”

Rodriguez says the city today has strengthened continuity of operations.

“As our CTO says, ‘Never let a good calamity go to waste.’ We’re in a much better position for remote work. When we suffered a recent ice storm, people who got power back could work from home and didn’t have to drive in. The pandemic helped us. We now think about remote work in a very meaningful way,” he says.

Technology Enables Assistance for the Homeless in El Paso

Nicole Ferrini, chief resilience officer for El Paso, Texas, realized the city had to move swiftly to protect its unhoused population during the pandemic. She convened 26 government and nonprofit groups to convert a recreation and senior center into the Delta Welcome Center, a safe haven for the unhoused.

“The pandemic suddenly constrained the ways homeless aid could function,” Ferrini says. “We had to find a way to continue to operate and to get stronger. We wanted to make sure that when this pandemic is over, we do better and ­continue to help seamlessly.”

40%

The percentage of state and local government employees whose workloads increased during the pandemic

Source: Governing, com, “COVID-19’s Lessons for the New Government Workplace,” Dec. 7, 2020

An assessment system called ­“coordinated entry” is the first step in helping people get the services they need. Usually that involves meeting in person, but the city didn’t want to put anyone at risk. Because El Paso had a strong ­partnership with Cisco, the ­company helped the city outfit the Delta Center with Cisco DX-80 video ­collaboration endpoints

Virtual meetings between unhoused visitors and government and nonprofit services were conducted by videoconference using Webex by Cisco. A Spanish-language bot offered live ­translation through a Webex chat.

“It occurred to me that it wasn’t as simple as putting the units on the desk and turning them on,” Ferrini says. “It’s more complex than that. You must have the technology infrastructure on the back end as well, and that was where the relationship with Cisco was valuable to making this run smoothly.”

Photography by Guerin Blask