IT Department History
The City of Canton’s Information Technology (IT) Department does varying amounts of work for each of the City of Canton’s departments. IT started in the early 1970s to automate the billing process of billing for the Water Department’s Utility Billing Division, and it grew from there.
The hardware was literally room-sized mainframes, the computer room had to maintain its environmental conditions (temperature and humidity) to within specific ranges. These old computer rooms had raised-floors to allow for thick bundles of wires and cables to be run around the room without getting in the way. Stacks of punch cards were used to store computer programs until the early 1980s.
By the mid 1980's the City ran three of its own Burroughs mainframes (B-2900, B-3900, and a B-5900) in its own raised-floor computer room. After punch cards were phased out, the hard drive cabinets were the size of short, fat, deep, filing cabinets and held 2 "207 disk modules", each disk module stored 207 megabytes (MB) and was about 1’ × 2’ × 4’ (h × w × d) big, so each cabinet could store 414 MB of data. There were several of those disk cabinets. The programs were written in COBOL (COmmon Business-Oriented Language).
Early Backups & Data Processing
Backups were stored on large reel-to-reel tapes, that were not as reliable as modern backup technologies.
Back then the IT Department was called "Data Processing". That name stuck through the mid-1980s, then the name changed to Management Information Systems (MIS), that was around the same time the City started getting "Micro Computers" (Personal Computers, PC’s, B-20's [from Burroughs] and C-20's [from Convergent Technologies], desktop computers and early WANG word processors that were in the luggable [portable computer] category), and "Macro Computers" (that were about the size of a small desk).
Networks - Daisy Chain then Ethernet and Beyond
It was also in the mid 1980’s that the City also began networking computers, initially with "daisy chain" networking that was reliant on every computer being in the network (or else every computer in the chain after one that was disconnected would also be disconnected). Then around 1990 the City switched to Ethernet networking technologies, where if one computer was removed from the network, it wouldn’t take any other computers off the network. By the early 2000's the City began adding WiFi access points to accommodate emerging technologies.
In the early, to mid-1990s the Department’s named changed again, to Information Systems (IS).
Around 1995 the City had its first web site (its domain name was CityOfCanton.com), it was hosted on external commercial servers and it was written entirely in static Hyper Text Markup Language (HTML). Only one person in the Mayor’s office was permitted to make changes on the web site, so it took a while to get some of the changes of the information updated on the web site.
In the mid to late 1990’s the City began, in earnest, switching to PC technologies from "dumb terminal" technologies, the age of raised-floor computer rooms was coming to an end. That was also the time when the City began providing internet access via proxy servers to the PCs on its networks.
Network Based Telephones
In the late 1990’s the IS Department got most of the City’s telephones moved from "Landline" phones at everyone’s desk, to network based telephones. At the time this saved the City over $10,000 per month.
Year 2000 (Y2K)
As the year 2000 was approaching, there were widespread fears of Y2K computer issues. This is because a lot of computer technologies were using a 2-digit year instead of a 4 digit year (ex. 99 instead of 1999). Now it seems silly to have ever used a 2-digit year, but the practice started back in the beginning of computer storage when storage was extremely expensive and limited, and we had to try to save space everywhere we could. Thankfully due to the Y2K hype, just about every place (including the City of Canton) spent most of 1999 making sure there wouldn’t be any issues as the year changed to 2000. Some people think that Y2K was over-hyped, but all of that hype is what made everyone in the computer industry work to the point that any problems from the year switching to 2000 were insignificant. Y2K ended up being a self-defeating prophecy.
In 2008 the IS Department was tasked to create a new web site that each department could maintain its own section of. At the time, no Content Management System (CMS) existed with the required security that would keep each department’s section secure unto itself, so to get an advanced starting point on the CMS application one of the programmers brought in his own CMS he had been developing as a hobby at his house, and it became its own unique branch of the CMS that the City uses. It was designed from the beginning with security in mind. The CMS undergoes security probes a few times a month from an external online security company to look for any vulnerabilities, to date there have been no vulnerabilities detected in the CMS. The CMS was also created to have applications developed for it and run within it, leveraging everything developed for the CMS (including its security).
IS to IT
In the 2010s the Director of Information Systems’ title was changed to the Director of Information Technology, even though the department name remained Information Systems. So unofficially the IS Department has become the IT Department.
The IT Department has spent most of the 2010’s moving away from older expensive technologies to more modern and efficient technologies, including externally hosted solutions.
On May 4, 2018, the IT Department moved away from its historic position of being located by the Water Department’s Utility Billing Division, to being within City Hall. Where we are better able to assist more users face-to-face.
New Phone System
The City’s phone system has been showing signs of its age, so the IT Department was tasked to switch the City to a new Phone System. The Hardware Techs were not able to keep up with their normal duties and also switch users over to the new phone system, so the Programing (Coding) staff stepped up and did a lot of the new phone installs around the City, especially in City Hall.
Now the City’s phones are IP based, and more future-proof than the previous phones had become.
In The Year 2020
As the year was getting ready to change to 2020, the City moved its Website to a different CMS that is hosted on 3rd party servers (CivicPlus). The new CMS has some deficiencies when compared to the previous CMS, but it also has some abilities that the previous CMS didn’t have, we are hoping that the new abilities will make the new Website better for the citizens. Due to limitations of the new CMS, the original CMS could not be discarded, it still runs applications on it that the new CMS cannot run.
2020 brought with it more challenges, including the Corona Virus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. The IT Department had to set up many of the employees to be able to work from home, for "Social Distancing" reasons. The entire Programming Staff of the IT Department were among those that could do almost all of their work remotely. The Tech Staff were able to split themselves up in to two groups where one group could work from home, and the other would work onsite, and they would switch in the middle of the week.
IT also had to get departments to be able to conduct video conferencing, including LIVE Streaming the Council Meetings (the idea of which Council had been resistant to prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but now they more clearly see the benefits).
After twelve weeks of having many employees (including the Programming Staff) work exclusively at home, the City has decided it was able to bring employees back to work on site. The Programming Staff then started working in the same staggered way that the Tech Staff was working, half at home and half on site, switching in the middle of the week. That would ensure employees could maintain the Social Distancing protocols needed to slow the spread of COVID-19.
The City has also begun moving some of its internal and Web servers to an off-site 3rd party provider to reduce the cost of hardware and maintenance.
The City has always been conscious of security threats, but web site and network breaches were becoming more problematic around the world since more work and services were online, so the IT Department began taking a more proactive role in preventing breaches, attacks, malicious software (malware), including ransom ware. Even state level actors, such as Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran, have been getting bolder in their cyber-attacks against targets in the United States.
The IT Department has put more security in place for the City's email system, and the network. End user training is also a priority since most of the breaches that take place are due to some users not knowing how to protect themselves, and the network.
So far, the security changes are keeping the City's servers/users/networks safe from malicious hackers and malware.
Getting Used To A New Normal In 2021
With everyone trying to put 2020 behind them, we start the year 2021 with great hopefulness. As of January 19, 2021, all of the IT staff stopped working from home and came back to working in the office, in spite of some of the highest COVID-19 numbers still coming out.
All of the advances in telecommuting and virtual meetings made working from home possible, and it also makes working in the office better, especially when we need to work with users in remote locations around the city.