Independence upgrading computers and cybersecurity

Mike Genet

After years of piecemeal replacement and investment, the city of Independence will modernize its entire data center computer servers and upgrade its cyber security.

The City Council unanimously approved three resolutions Monday totaling about $4.4 million – $1.88 million for hardware and software to modernize the primary and backup data centers, and $1.57 million for cybersecurity. A contract for $972,000 with Riverside Technologies would be for network hardware.

The council last week postponed action so it could hear more from the city’s information staff and the vendors. In part, some were wary because implementing new software programs around the city has gone unexpectedly long.

The data centers hold information such as utility accounts and records, water treatment and electric automations and police and municipal court records. The project would be paid for over the next several years with tax-exempt financing – bonds with lower interest rates because the interest is exempt from federal taxes – and using funds from various city departments depending on usage.

Jason Newkirk, the city’s chief information officer, said that with several servers nearing the end of their lifespans and storage capacity simultaneously, it is cheaper and more practical for the city to replace everything in one fell swoop.

“We’re purchasing less pieces of equipment if we do it all at once,” Newkirk said. “We haven’t made a significant hardware investment in eight years, we’ve replaced for specific needs, but we haven’t done a whole replacement project.”

While city officials said it wouldn’t be prudent to divulge specific cybersecurity concerns publicly, Newkirk and Mayor Eileen Weir said it’s fair to say the city’s information system, like many other municipalities, is constantly under attack.

Newkirk said they see malicious attempts during daily checks.

“We made technology a priority for this council in 2013, and it was because nearly every one of our systems was woefully outdated and hadn’t been maintained,” Weir said.

Software installation has not been smooth, she said, because of the amount of training needed by staff, plus turnover at key times. In this case, only the information technology staff will need training.

Chris Johnson, IT manager for the city, said staff will be training alongside as the vendors install the new machines, rather than train and hand off afterwards. That should help assure the new equipment will be up and running in 10 months, he said, and he’ll be documenting along the way for future if-needed hires.

Council Member Brice Stewart, who works in IT for Jackson County said he can relate to cyber hacks.

“Every day municipalities have attempted hacks,” he said. “Some of these cities were as small as 5,000 people. I don’t know how we can afford not to do this. I’ve experienced a very small hack that went to just one department, and it was a nightmare to recover.

City Manager Zach Walker said the server and cybersecurity investments will be something the city must continue to assess.

“These things aren’t cheap, and they aren’t glamorous,” he said, but they keep a city functioning and help avoid a “boondoggle” from an attack or data crash.

Council Member Mike Steinmeyer wondered if the city’s cybersecurity investment should be larger, as it’s well below many larger cities in terms of percentage of budget. The fact the city has its own utilities should be all the more reason to invest, he said.

“I think this is a very small amount for the security of our residents, not just personal information but the grid we rely on,” Steinmeyer said. “I don’t know that what we’re doing is enough, and I don’t want to just do something.”

Johnson said several previous audits had shown the city was below where it should be with cybersecurity, and this investment would put them above average. If need be, he said, the city could add further layers of security in the future, as cybersecurity is a constant, evolving threat.

“We are getting the absolute best fit for our systems,” he said.

Council Member Dan Hobart said the vendors’ experience with similar projects, including recent work with clients such as Kansas City International Airport and the state of Nebraska, should serve as a good recommendation.

“If the airport fails, they have some massive concerns,” he said.