Making Real Change in Your Community, Powered by Cisco ACI and DNA


IT is a job that can be done at any organization. Sometimes people ask me: Why work in government? It’s a question close to my own heart. I’m not a person who likes to come into work just to get a paycheck. If I’m doing something, I want to be passionate about it. I want to do things that matter. Working in local government, I can see the impact my work has on my community, every day.

I am with Durham County government in North Carolina, where I serve the 315,000 residents and 7,500 businesses of the county. I’ll set the stage: Durham County employs a little over 2,000 people. Of those, forty-six work in IT, four of which work in the network and security department. Of us four, one is a non-technical manager and one is a voice administrator, so that leaves two of us working on network and security. Two people out of two thousand.

Security should be a major focus in government organizations. Residents’ health care and financial information are just as sensitive as any other data out there.

We’re a small team, but we have big responsibilities. The healthcare and financial information of Durham County residents is just as sensitive as any other data out there. Our task is to not only improve government services, but also to assure residents their data is secure.

Swamped in Troubleshooting

The way we used to manage our data center and enterprise, we spent so much time just keeping it running. It was a very manual operation. Just like any network, we have a large number of interconnected devices, and they all had to be managed individually, configured individually, and upgraded individually. This resulted in a security policy that was extremely complex, and in turn difficult to manage and modify. We were very inefficient in the way we managed the data center.

As someone who wanted to make a difference, this inefficiency was painful. We didn’t have time to talk to the C-level groups in Durham County to help them solve their business problems. We didn’t have time to improve our residents’ experience of their local government. We didn’t have time because we spent the majority of it just troubleshooting.

More Than Buzzwords, You Need a Vision

We had to make a change, starting with the data center. When we began searching for new network and security options, I knew I had to take a holistic view because this update would be a long-term project. I refused to get caught up in buzzwords, and as we got into this process, a lot of the vendors were selling me buzzwords. I wasn’t going to be swayed simply by the overlay, or the SDN controller, that sits upon the data center network. We needed to look at the underlying hardware as well. We required something that was an actual platform. In other words, we had to know what the data center was going to look like. And, more than that, we needed a partner we could trust. 

One of the reasons I selected Cisco is because I believe in Cisco’s vision of providing both efficiency and control in the data center with ACI, and now DNA Center to manage our Enterprise network. It was important for this to be an end-to-end solution because other vendors were offering just bits and pieces we could automate, that we could make more efficient. What other vendors offered wasn’t a complete solution. With Cisco, I felt very comfortable with not only their vision, but the commitment they showed to ACI as a next generation platform. This is enhanced more now with the ongoing integration between ACI and DNA Center. The solution and long-term vision as a whole is why we decided to go with Cisco and their ACI solution, followed up now by DNA Center.

Making Time for Innovation

We’ve been full production with ACI for over two years now, and it’s completely changed the way we manage our data center. ACI provided us with a single point of automation and orchestration where we’ve been able to reduce the complexity of all our operations in the data center. That increased our efficiency in managing it. Not only did ACI make us more efficient, it’s greatly increased security. It’s been a game changer for us.

If I had to change a security policy in the data center in the traditional model we were running—if I had no other issues to troubleshoot, if that’s all I had to worry about—it would probably take me about an hour. It took an hour to get that security policy spread across all the equipment, tested, QA’d, and make sure nothing breaks. If I had to troubleshoot something on top of that, it would have taken even longer. Today, if I have to make that same security upgrade in ACI, it takes me four or five minutes. I’ve timed it.

In a large organization, time is the most valuable resource. Find solutions that give network engineers their time back.

In an organization of Durham County’s size, time is our most valuable resource, and ACI gave me time back. Products and solutions like ACI and DNA Center help us flip the model. Spending less time on just keeping the network up frees more time for innovation. My goal is to start partnering with local businesses in Durham County to see how we can help solve issues they face. IT network and security has traditionally been thought of as a cost. I want to change that perspective, within Durham County but also for my peers across other industries. Network and security is an investment because of our potential to add value to the business.

Catching Issues Before They Become Problems

Outside of time saved, we see a host of other benefits with the enterprise network. I’ve had DNA Center up since February, and immediately upon moving all our network devices within DNA Center we started seeing results from the Assurance application. One of the first things we saw was a problem with a set of 3850s we had installed in one of our largest facilities. It showed us errors on all ports. This was something we didn’t know about before. Why are these ports at every 3850 in this building getting these high input-output errors on every interface? We did a quick search on Cisco’s website and, sure enough, we were using a version of code that had a bug that would falsely report errors on ports on the 3850 switches. We wouldn’t have caught that without DNA Center or known we had to upgrade those switches to resolve that problem.

Another time, I showed up for work one morning and the voice administrator was all excited. He said, “Let me tell you what Assurance just did for me.” He happened to open up Assurance and saw a phone on the second floor of our building that showed a health score of zero. It wasn’t getting on the network or acquiring an IP address. So he reported it to our helpdesk, they saw that the phone was just in a state where it was spinning. It’s a simple fix: Unplug it, plug it back in, the phone comes back up, gets an IP address, and it’s online.

The right IT insights mean you can solve issues BEFORE they become a problem.

It doesn’t seem like a big deal, right? But I think we all know how this would have gone if we hadn’t caught it before the end user got to work. One of our employees would have come in on a Monday morning and their phone wasn’t working. Their computer plugs into that phone for network connectivity, so it’s affected as well. They can’t use their phone. They can’t use their computer. So now they have to use someone else’s phone to call the help desk. The help desk has to open a ticket, send someone down. It’s such a simple fix, but the whole process might take two hours to restore that service. That’s two hours until the employee gets to start work. With Assurance, we fixed that problem before the end user even arrived. They never knew there was an issue. They came to work and just started working.

Think Local: Simple Solutions, Big Impact

I’ll give you two examples where we’re already adding value for Durham County residents. Both examples are products of our great application development team. It used to take two to three months to get applications in front of our residents. With the switch to Cisco, we can get applications into residents’ hands much quicker, and we have the comfort of knowing that they’ll work and be secure.

The first of these apps work to remove the frustration a lot of people feel in dealing with their local government. Often when someone visits a government office, they have to bring a lot of documentation with them. The purpose of the visit might be to show a county employee these documents so the resident can receive benefits. Let’s say you arrive at the county office and you realize you don’t have some of the documentation you need. You have to go back home, maybe you need to print or scan the document, and then you need to come back. Already, there was likely a bit of friction in your day. 

We try to make our residents’ lives easier, so we developed a mobile app for submitting documents to Durham County. If you need to submit documents, you just log into the app, take pictures of the documents with your phone, and upload all of them to the app. It’s a big time saver for our residents, especially because now there’s no forgetting something at home when you come to visit us. It means when you do come to see us, we can focus on getting you the benefits and services you need.

The second app is called Court Reminders and it might not initially sound like a big deal, but we’re getting a lot of attention across the country for it. One of our responsibilities as a county government is to manage the courthouse, and the biggest problem in managing courts is scheduling. Specifically, the problem is missed court dates: A large percentage of court appearances are people who missed their original court date. They forgot, they didn’t write it down, or maybe they remembered but the date had to be rescheduled and they didn’t realize the notice they received in the mail was for a new date. Sometimes it’s an innocent mistake like that. With the Court Reminders app, once you sign up and input your information, the app reminds you as the date gets closer and it automatically updates if the date is rescheduled. Since introducing Court Reminders, we’ve seen missed court dates drop a great deal.

I know these solutions sound so obvious, but sometimes solving the smallest problem can make a big difference. On the Court Reminders app especially, we’ve received good feedback from our citizens, but we also now have counties from across the country getting in touch with us, saying, “How did you solve this? Because we have the exact same problem.”

Working within local government, I’m able to work on things that will directly impact the people and businesses here in Durham, North Carolina. I want to do things that make the lives of our citizens easier and that will make the country attractive, so people and businesses want to move here. I would not have the time to work on these initiatives without something like DNA Center. With everything going digital, the network is becoming a bridge between citizens and their government. That’s going to be the glue that holds us together. The network is what makes all this possible.