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NYC Department Environmental Protection Building

Very few organizations on the planet understand water as well as the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (NYC DEP). With over 7,000 miles of water mains and 7,500 miles of sewers, the NYC DEP is the single largest combined water and wastewater utility in the United States. The agency is responsible for delivering and treating water for over 9.6 million New Yorkers every day—that includes delivering over one billion gallons to businesses and residents and treating an additional 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater every single day.

Behind the pumps, hydrants, taps, and reservoirs are over 5,600 city employees dedicated to serving the Big Apple and its residents. These civil servants oversee the maintenance, quality, and overall operation of the city’s water supply and distribution, without whom the most populated city in the U.S.A. would run dry. It doesn’t get much more essential than that.

Business as usual

When COVID-19 brought daily operations across New York to a grinding halt, Deputy Commissioner and Business Information Officer (BIO) Cecil McMaster and his team needed an immediate solution for supporting thousands of new remote employees. As recently as January 2020, less than 2% of NYC DEP employees worked remotely. On March 12 that total ballooned to 60% of the total workforce. IT Chief of Staff Michael Shum and a team led by IT Director Farhan Abdullah, Cloud Engineer Vic Kayharee, Director of Networking Service Keino Leitch, Network Engineer Romel Osbourne, Director of Messaging Services Jignesh Shah,  Information Security Officer Jian Zhang, and Director of Collaboration Christopher Smith were able to keep DEP employees safe while continuing daily operations by leveraging the NYC DEP’s existing Microsoft Azure subscription paired with Windows Virtual Desktop.

“The entire Bureau of Business Information Technology (BIT) team members all played a critical role in supporting the agency digital transformation, with Microsoft Office 365 and Microsoft Teams” says McMaster.

For New York City and many other municipalities, the local stay at home orders was urgent and assertive. That meant agencies didn’t have a lot of time to upload new software, onboard new processes, or create new workflows. For the NYC DEP, that made connecting employees through its standard remote environment incredibly difficult.

Traditionally, the NYC DEP had relied on a standard virtual private network (VPN) to connect remote employees, and while a VPN provided a reasonable solution for a few employees, it was impossible to reasonably scale and manage across the larger workforce. “Our help desk was going crazy,” says Abdullah. “Windows Virtual Desktop helped us connect employees without a company laptop use their own devices and still have the full desktop experience.”

This ability to empower connectivity through a simple browser regardless of the device allowed Kayharee to activate hundreds of users in moments instead of dozens of VPN users over days.

“Microsoft Azure and Windows Virtual Desktop certainly helped us alleviate our constraints and offer a pretty seamless service to our remote users,” says Shum.

Building on the right foundation

“I need to work from a beach in St. Kitts as if I am in the office” recalls Kayharee receiving the direction from McMaster and how he and the team set out on a mission to accomplish the vision for a modern workspace with Azure and Windows Virtual Desktop.  Throughout this experience, the NYC DEP has been able to leverage its existing Azure ecosystem to adapt and scale according to the agency’s needs. “Farhan and Vic already had a transformation plan in place. This just accelerated it,” says Shum. “A lot of agencies and companies across New York struggled to put together the infrastructure for remote work. It took us a year to move onto Azure, and that investment has certainly helped us be successful today.”

Like any municipal organization, the NYC DEP is subject to approvals from city procurement. That means any new resources must go through the arduous process of securing the blessing of the local government. By leveraging Azure, the NYC DEP can scale up and down based on its needs without requiring a new contract, software, or municipal approvals. “Azure gave us the flexibility to be a more resilient business and maintain business continuity,” says Shum.

While there is still much to be determined about the future of daily life across New York City, the team at the NYC DEP is leveraging this season to expand its cloud efforts and empower a more digital-first workforce. “We see this as a huge opportunity for us as an organization to move towards our digital transformation,” says Abdullah.

“Support from agency senior executive and the motivated BIT team members helped the Agency become early adopters of cloud technologies. This enabled the agency to develop a pool of talents and enough knowledge to configure and deploy cloud technologies such as Windows Virtual Desktop quickly and efficiently”, says McMaster.