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To the cloud and back again - A Vermont Housing and Conservation Board Case Study

Vermont Housing and Conservation Board FileHold asked their long-term customer the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB) to describe the recent project to move from the cloud to an on-premise server. The project is unusual as the FileHold team is typically moving our installations from on-premise to the cloud.

Background

VHCB manages Federal, State, and public funding resources as awards to non-profit organizations working at the local level to identify and develop important projects in each community. Since its inception, VHCB has awarded over $322 million to nonprofit housing and conservation organizations, towns, municipalities and state agencies to conserve land, develop housing and restore historic community buildings in more than 200 towns. This in turn created a rather extensive record keeping burden for the various projects and funding sources which had historically been kept as paper files. Many of these records must be retained indefinitely because of their legal or historic nature and the space required by these files was significant and ongoing.

Starting in 2013 VHCB undertook a process to establish a blueprint for technology, with the purpose of upgrading our record keeping systems in a way that allowed for our continuing project portfolio growth, while also increasing staff and public access, and to provide better analysis and regulatory reporting for these records and most importantly to eliminate as much paper record keeping as possible. After much consideration, it was decided that we would be best served by implementing a complete rebuild of our project database which had been written in Foxpro in the 1990’s and to utilize a report writer to analyze and query the new database and we would also implement an electronic document management system. All were to be hosted in the cloud.

Organization description

VHCB was created in 1987 by the Vermont Legislature with the dual goals of creating affordable housing and conserving and protecting Vermont’s agricultural land, forest land, important natural areas, historic properties, and recreational lands that are important to the economic vitality and quality of life in the State.

Electronic Document Management to the cloud and back again

VHCB chose FileHold as our document management system in 2014 after looking at several other similar products as best suited to work with our needs and it would be able to integrate with our new project database tracking system by adding data entered into the database as metadata for document types. As new projects were entered in to the database, data such as project numbers would immediately be available to add as metadata in project documents. FileHold support was incredibly helpful in setting up our first cloud server using version 14.2 and FileHold provided staff training sessions that were also quite helpful during the early implementation as staff sorted out just how we wanted to use the new system. By 2015 we were live with FileHold and using the early stages of our project database both hosted in the cloud.

As staff adjusted to the new paperless working environment an unexpected problem came to light with our use of the cloud for hosting our new systems. In 2016, a State of Vermont project to move most State government phones (more than 6,000) to VoIP along with moving most State email accounts to Office 365 resulted in many bandwidth issues and many situations were staff were not able to access our data due to extremely limited bandwidth on the State Govnet which provides our access to the internet. As our cloud host was located in Virginia there were also additional region wide outages such as the DYN DDoS attack that also made it difficult to work with our data for extended periods. Bandwidth issues continued to be a random occurring problem into 2018, and coupled with other notable outages including a squirrel chewing through a fiber optic cable that took down all State agencies for a full work day, a decision was made to bring our data and FileHold back in house. By the time this decision was made FileHold support had again helped with an upgrade to Version 15.2 on our cloud server which had also gone very smoothly.

We worked extensively with the FileHold support team to facilitate the move from cloud to in house. During the lengthy process of planning for the move our FileHold cloud server was upgraded from 15.2 to 16.1 and a new server was configured in-house with version 16.1 so the replication of data would be as seamless as possible. In the lead up to migration and upgrade, staff were sent to the video tour of the new version 16.1 on the FileHold website which helped with understanding what the new version would be like. As a result the transition to the new version was seamless and problem free for staff.

Our project database and integrated report writer presented many more complications to replicate which added several months of work and testing so we purchased an additional FileHold server license to facilitate our extended testing needs and to keep staff working in the cloud server until all systems were tested and working and we were ready for the move.

During the final move and synchronization of cloud data, FileHold support was able to review and re-check and confirm our new installation and final migration was successful with only minor triage necessary. Support also provided useful help in our design of a script to automate changes to each users’ local FileHold client config files so that all users were pointed to the new in house server after a PowerShell script was run. This resulted in a seamless change for most users as the next time they logged onto the client it automatically went to the correct server.

Now that the move is complete and our data is in house, we have eliminated any potential downtime due to low bandwidth. Because we also took the time to upgrade our server environment with more processing power and faster SSD digital drives, the response time for staff is significantly improved and everyone is very pleased with the new in house system.

How is your system used and what are the benefits?

Currently Staff are using the FileHold software to store project and financial documents, and supporting communications and related documents in addition to legal files. As new project applications are processed, new project database information is entered by staff. Several database lookup fields are synchronized to FileHold metadata drop down fields for things like project numbers, applicant or grantee names and other project relevant information like check request dates and board meeting dates. This means project related documents can be stored and tagged by project as soon as a new project is entered in the database and all data is correctly tagged without duplicative or similar names or numbers and is easy to find. A typical project includes: legal documents, financial records, board approvals, staff memos, and project related emails. Utilizing FileHold for storage has eliminated several duplicative tracking systems. The additional OCR scanning of all documents allows for searches on any word occurring in docs in addition to the project specific metadata fields. Legal documents are managed by workflow to convert to records that cannot be changed once they are verified by legal staff. Versioning of documents has allowed for an auditable trail for both financial and government-related audits or inspections. Recent financial auditors were granted guest access to FileHold for the purpose of looking up relevant financial data for the audit and had no trouble finding requested records for their review.

Please comment on the FileHold Support team

FileHold support has been a great help since the very beginning in 2014. Since document management was a fairly new concept for our organization, they helped not only with the initial installation but answered countless questions on design and best practices. In the early rounds of trying to figure out just how we wanted to use this new tool it was comforting to know help was only a phone call or email away to get an answer. Over the years and during our recent migration we greatly appreciate how helpful the support team has been and they have proven to be very insightful on many different remote support sessions including with some related but vexing SQL database issues we were having that affected the installation and use of FileHold. We also appreciate the support documents available on the FileHold website for those times when a support call is not warranted but you need to find an answer on something. Additionally, the video tour helped alleviate fears or concerns among staff on whether we should upgrade or not or if the new version would significantly change each user’s use of the platform.

Technology overview

Vermont Housing and Conservation Board currently has 50 users of the FileHold software working on 12 concurrency licenses with the optional features of document workflow, FastFind and server-side OCR, and a document scanning software tool that was included in the purchase. FileHold is installed on a virtual machine (VM) server on Microsoft Server 2016 environment. All VMs are hosted on an HP 350 gen 10 hardware server running Microsoft Hypervisor 2019. Additional supporting VMs working with the FileHold installation include a Microsoft SQL 2017 server that keeps both FileHold SQL data and our project database backend data. An IIS server VM runs the project database front-end website and also hosts a separate report writer that queries the back-end project database. The front-end website was designed in-house with our IS manager and an outside programmer utilizing .NET programming code. The initial front-end and back-end along with FileHold were hosted on two cloud hardware servers starting in 2014. Both servers were running Microsoft Server 2008R2 which was approaching end of life so a migration was going to be necessary soon regardless. The new virtual environment in-house allowed for newer OS, faster CPUs, more memory, and better segmentation by function which means a much faster user experience. Our recent migration showed there were about 97,000 documents in the document repository and all staff report searches are much faster in the new system.