County Server Room - Putnam Sentinel
Ottawa-Glandorf High School students Dylan Bockrath (left) and Drew Sutter (right), who spent the day job-shadowing the county commissioners, stand with IT Director Joe Berkhart in the the server room, (Putnam Sentinel/Martin Verni)

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PUTNAM COUNTY — The ordeal began shortly after the new year. A county employee clicked on a link that seemed legitimate. It wasn’t.

When it became clear that as least 1,000 computers had been infected, commissioners ordered all them turned off. For two weeks employees re-learned how to conduct county business using pen and paper alone. However, an immediate fix was, in fact, available. The ransomeware hackers who sent the phishing email would return all to its properly functioning state for $31,000 in cryptocurrency.

Licking County, Ohio said, “No.”

These details and others were reported by the Columbus Dispatch and a number of additional media outlets. It became a national story, and a warning for small governments everywhere. One which Putnam County has heeded.

Recently, Putnam County IT Director Joe Burkhart conducted three mock attacks on the county’s servers. In each instance, Burkhart was able to isolate the infected workstations, wipe them clear of malicious code (and everything else), and then restore the workstations, along with most of their files, from a backup server. This all occurred in a matter of minutes.

“What we do is, we got a server here, like a template,” says Burkhart. “It’s a full blown Window’s server. In a matter of two minutes, we can copy it across. Rename it, and we’re up. We’ve got a new server. Give it another IP address and we’re going…These have 384 gigs of RAM, each. Your regular computer probably has about 16 gigs. These have 384.”

According to Burkhart, the data contained in each server is backed up twice every 24 hours on a regular schedule. At most, the county might lose a few hours of work in an attack, documents or emails that had been composed, files received from external sources and saved. All previous work, all digital records, information, correspondence and the like, all of that would be preserved and restored.

The new system is designed to withstand more than just a malicious attack as well. Should there ever be a fire at the courthouse or similar event which might compromise the hardware, there’s a third server housed at the Sheriff’s Office. “We have two fiber [data lines] going right now. [The first] is a one gigabit and the other is a 10 gigabit connection between the two hubs. These (referencing the two servers in the courthouse) all connect via switches, and they’re both duplicated, so if one goes down everything stays up an running. That’s where the fiber comes into play. Like I said, there’s a 10 gigbit connection to the other server [at the sheriff’s office].”

Beyond the data storage redundancy and quick ability to restore operations following any systems becoming compromised by malicious hacking, Burkhart has also laid the groundwork for improving county operations.

“In the Sheriff’s Office, we’ve got the 911 center over there. The three dispatch systems are going to be virtualized as well. So they got three computers going into [a server]. They’ve got virtual workstations. If something goes down or bad, there’s a problem with it, just delete it, throw it away. We can throw another one up, and [911 is] up and running again. I can do this in about three minutes.”

Since the workstations are virtual, Burkhart also does not need to be physically present in the 911 operations center at the Sheriff’s office in order to quickly resolve any issues. This also holds true for proactive measures as well, such as software updates and security patches. Burkhart can deploy them from the server room in the County without the deputies at dispatch being impacted in any way, or needing to take any action.

The county is also close to launching a video arraignment system as well. “The equipment has been ordered. The connections are there. The wires have been run,” according to Burkhart. The real-time video relay system will allow county inmates to be arraigned in court without leaving the jail. In August of this year, a Paulding County inmate, Branden Powell, escaped while being transported back from Northwest Ohio Psychiatric Hospital in Toledo. While such transports can never be eliminated entirely, the video arraignment system will significantly reduce their number and the risk associated with moving inmates. It will also free up deputies for other public safety concerns.

The video arraignment system can even be connected to the internet to serve additional counties. Currently, Hancock County contracts with the Putnam County Sheriff to house its overflow inmates in the Putnam County Jail. By connecting this system to the internet, those inmates could also be arranged by Hancock County without needing them to leave the jail.