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Going high-tech in Vaughan

It's tough for a municipality to provide quality services to employees, businesses, and citizens when its IT system plays truant and crashes unexpectedly.


May 1, 2004  


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It’s tough for a municipality to provide quality services to employees, businesses, and citizens when its IT system plays truant and crashes unexpectedly.

The city of Vaughan learned that the hard way, which is why it recently completed a total overhaul of its IT network.

The initiative is in keeping with VaughanVision 2007, a development plan adopted by the municipal council last February that identifies six “strategic priorities” for the city over the next few years. One of these is harnessing innovative technologies to improve and expand service delivery to employees and the public.

“Our networking infrastructure project can certainly be dubbed innovative,” says Dimitri Yampolsky, the city’s IT Services Director.

As part of this initiative, Vaughan, situated just north of Toronto, has connected all its administrative properties to a flexible and secure network.

While the immediate goal was to improve delivery of services to its 220,000 residents and 7,000 businesses, the project also has longer-term objectives.

According to Yampolsky, they are enhancing availability, cost-efficiency, modularity, simplicity and scalability — not necessarily in that order.

“These are also the guiding principles of our IT strategy,” he says. “All our technology initiatives, including the infrastructure overhaul, align with one or more of those principles.” Yampolsky says the municipality frequently upgrades and scales its technology to offer newer and better services to area residents and businesses. “That’s why we need a modular and flexible networking environment that can be altered on the fly as needs dictate.”

And that’s precisely the type of infrastructure Vaughan has fashioned using open standards-based technologies mainly, though not exclusively, from Andover, Mass.-based Enterasys Networks Inc.

Products include its Matrix Ethernet and Gigabit standalone switches, X-Pedition routers and Vertical Horizon workgroup switches. “The city was one of our first customers to implement a 10 GB standalone link between their central site (City Hall) and another property,” says Armughan Ahmad, national account executive at Enterasys Networks.

Vendors such as Nortel Networks Inc. and Cisco Systems Corp. have provided termination equipment, including lower-level switches and ISDN routers, according to Jack Dhaliwal, senior manager, technical support services at Vaughan.

Eighty per cent of its network is wired, while the rest is a combination of wireless and software.

For wireless connectivity, the city has deployed a point-to-point solution from Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Proxim Corp. “We did this in areas where our existing fibre network could not be expanded or where telcos could not provide high-speed services,” says Dhaliwal.

Wireless LAN capabilities are provided by RoamAbout, an Enterasys offering that supports 802.11a and 802.11b and enables migration to higher performance 54 Mbps.

Seamless integration of these technologies was accomplished by the city’s internal IT staff in partnership with Enterasys system engineers and Markham, Ont.-based integrator Albert White Technologies.

10 GB standalone link

It’s a job that has not ended. “Our IT folks continue to monitor equipment and bandwidth on an almost daily basis to ensure they always meet capacity requirements,” says Dhaliwal. Such vigilance has paid rich dividends. “Since we launched the project we haven’t had a single instance of downtime,” he says.

According to Ahmad, the network’s availability is also a direct result of using fault- tolerant equipment without a single point of failure.

Enhanced network traffic management is another compelling outcome of the project. Traffic on the network is now constantly monitored and channeled to its proper destination with the help of VLAN technologies that optimize traffic flow within populations of mutual interest.

Ahmad notes that policy-driven technologies also facilitate traffic management at a very granular level. The city may place a rule on a port stipulating (for instance) that users cannot start SNMP (Single Network Management Protocol) traffic.

What that means is once users are authenticated on the network they can do only what they are authorized to do and nothing more.

Ahmad says policies extend to application provisioning with users being allotted bandwidth according to the applications they access.

For instance, a finance department employee logging on to the city’s ERP system, may be allotted more bandwidth than an employee from another department who uses a word processing application.

“The unique thing is the switch itself has the intelligence to recognize which application is used and by whom, and to allocate bandwidth accordingly,” says Dhaliwal.

The city takes advantage of the X-Pedition routers built-in application control and security features to protect ports through which Internet access is offered to the public. “When virus attacks occur the routers enable us to block machines that broadcast on those ports, ensuring such attacks do not take our network down,” says Dhaliwal.

The revamped infrastructure connects several major municipal properties. “The hub,” says Yampolsky “is the Civic Centre. From there, the network expands to facilities where we have administrative or community services staff, as well as to our libraries.”

He says approximately 1,000 users – primarily city and library employees — now easily access corporate resources, including e-mail, financial and purchasing systems, the recreation facilities booking system and other vital data and applications.

Open standards

One such application is Amanda, which tracks the building standards activities, as well as all business or special operator licenses issued by the city.

In terms of benefits of the deployment, cost-savings rank high.

“Our network maintenance expenses have been flatlined over the past three years,” says Yampolsky. “They have not increased though our network has grown considerably. And that’s a direct result of the cost-effectiveness of the new technologies deployed.”

He adds that another big cost-saving comes from Vaughn’s ability to make enterprise-wide network changes quickly in response to changing business requirements. “In the past, implementing these changes took much longer and cost more. Now we do it on the fly.”

One reason for this flexibility is a decision early on in the process to steer away from proprietary technologies using them only in a few projects, such as the point-to-point wireless network.

“Our policy,” says Yampolsky “is to adhere to open standards as much as possible. By doing so, we increase our ability to integrate with other systems and tweak or change things quickly.”

The city’s IT department is trained to support open standards technologies, so there is less reliance on vendor support. “In addition, our staff is better positioned to deal with issues because they are thoroughly familiar with our entire network architecture, not just specific components. As they are located on site, they respond to problems as soon as they occur.”

According to Dhaliwal, the use of standard network management tools used to manage IT equipment, change the interface, IP address or security levels has greatly reduced the staff learning curve and training.

And the beneficiaries are not just employees, who now do their jobs more efficiently. The infrastructure overhaul also enables the city to offer its citizens and businesses direct access to useful information and transactions.

For instance, Yampolsky says, residents can log on to the Vaughan web site, locate the nearest community centre and obtain updated information on select programs. “They can also check if there’s space available and register for these programs online.”

As part of a soon-to-be launched city project, “hotspots” or “guest networks” will be created in select areas. “For instance, we plan to create wireless hotspots in libraries,” says Yampolsky. “When that happens, patrons will be able to bring their own devices into the library, log on to the Inter
net wirelessly, and conduct research or access library resources.”

The convergence of the city’s telephony and data networks through the deployment of VoIP devices is yet another project in the pipeline.

“That will happen in the next three to five years,” says Yampolsky. “When it does, it will greatly reduce our operating costs in terms of physical wiring and administration, and increase efficiency even more.”

Joaquim Menezes is a freelance writer based in Mississauga, Ont. He can be reached at joaquimmenezes@rogers.com.


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