VA could give MS Office the boot


With an eye on reducing ongoing software costs, the Veterans Affairs Department said it is exploring alternatives to Microsoft Corp.’s longstanding Office Suite productivity software that has dominated federal desktops for two decades.

The VA currently owns and operates the 2003, 2007 and 2010 versions of Office, which include Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, and which are being used by more than 300,000 VA employees. Use of the integrated software suite has provided for interoperability between the VA’s many units.

However, as the VA looks for ways to cut the costs of licensed software installed on desktops, officials said one strategy is to examine the possibility of cloud-based and software alternatives to the desktop-installed Office software, according to a Feb. 17 announcement on the Federal Business Opportunities website.

Other government agencies, including the central government of Australia, also have taken steps to adopt more open architectures and open source and cloud software, partly for cost-cutting but also for ease of adoption to multiple mobile platforms, among other reasons. A recent factor that may be contributing to the trend is that while the Apple iPad has become more popular for government use, Microsoft Office for iPad is not yet widely available, which has driven some users to adopt alternative word processing and documents solutions.

The VA’s Office of Information and Technology said it intends to solicit proposals for alternative architectures for providing an office productivity suite with similar functions that are offered in Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint, as well as Access, Visio, OneNote and Project.

The alternatives could include off-premises cloud systems such as Microsoft’s Office 365, Google Apps, LotusLive or others, the VA said. Generally such systems offer access to the cloud-based productivity solution on a monthly fee basis.

The solutions also could include an on-premises cloud based terminal server or application virtualization system, such as a system providing Microsoft Office 2010.

A third alternative could be a desktop-installed software that offers similar features to Microsoft Office, such as OpenOffice.org, which is a free, open-source product.

The VA has issued a Request for Information asking vendors to submit white papers by March 15 assessing the available options, based on their functional capabilities, per-seat costs, security, and interoperability with current applications.

The department intends to run a pilot project demonstrating the alternative choices to Microsoft Office.

“The purpose of the pilot is to understand the issues such as security, supportability, interoperability, ease of use, end user satisfaction, speed, network requirements and compatibility with Microsoft based products over a diverse set of users within a large enterprise setting,” the VA said.

Microsoft executives were not immediately available to comment on the pilot project.

Many business users also are adopting open source and alternative software solutions at a lower cost than office, according to a Feb. 8 article in ComputerWorld. It mentions OpenOffice.org, LibreOffice and Kingsoft Office Suite as potential alternatives to Office.

A number of governments around the world are using, or considering, adoption of the OpenDocument format for documents, which is an Extensible Markup Language (XML) format developed as part of OpenOffice.org, according to an article in Wikipedia.



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Reader comments

Tue, Apr 17, 2012 Jeff Louisville, KY

Why get hung up on the author's "owns and operates" statement. The whole point of the article went right over your head. I find it disturbing that after waiting SO long to deploy 2007, that now right before the potential deployment of Office 2010, they start talking about this! It will take them years to study and committee this to death. It amazes me that the IT world within the VA moves at such a slow pace, while at the same time keeping the front-line users in the dark until the relative last minute. We use SharePoint 2010 extensively, and are unable to implement many of the great features that Office 2010 offers when deployed with SharePoint 2010 because we're still using Office 2007.

Wed, Mar 14, 2012 Mike Carrick San Francisco

It's more than office. It's the whole FABRIC of Email as the backbone for communications and it's recent extension SharePoint, without which NO workgroup, task force, tiger team or any other multi-disciplinary team effort (and there are thousands of them!) could survive. Did I omit MS-Project, and Visio which form the foundation for ALL of the VA's technical documentation? Or integration with LiveMeeting, the default conferencing system? RTF formatting?? RTF formatting BLOWS. I like my data EMBEDDED. I like my sharepoint lists linked. Maybe we can refurbish some old VT-100's and dot matrix printers while we're at it. We are retreating. BIG TIME.

Tue, Mar 13, 2012 Martin Brown

You people are sweating minor details and missing the 'big picture'. Can the VA truly wean itself off of MS Office? (Most all of its IT is Windows based.) Or will MS lower its price of Office enough to entice the VA to stay with it, as it has with others? Or is a major price break all the VA is looking for? (Again, most all of its IT is Windows based.)

Wed, Feb 29, 2012 Dr Adrian Midgley Exeter, UK

The "owning and operating" is less an error than a misconception which is common. People who buy a box with a CD in it and install it very often do think they _own_ the software, albeit without rights to copy it and distribute copies. Their thought is perhaps by parallel with a car, or a printed book, and is reaosnable and promoted by the way the software is sold. But the view of the software company is that they are selling only a licence. From time to time some company tries on a more stupidly restrictive transfer of rights, and it remains yet to be determined, I think, how the European law on "First Sale" applies (IANAL, but I think it applies in favour of the consumer). So the VA owns (the licences conferring certain rights under specified conditions to install and use) and operates the software. I'm a pedant, but I'd not regard it as a fact checking error, more as a sensible contraction but with it worth noting that if you have a copy of Libre[1] Office you cna use it, copy it, pass copies on, modify it and genrally, as long as you don't pretend that it is your own work or try to sequester it, make what use of it you like. WHich is good. [1] Libre. That would be French, rather than Spanish. English uses one word "free" for both of two concepts. French has libre and gratuit SO libre is commonly used in open source discussions, rather than the AMerican "free as in speech". SInce Libre Office is also "free as in beer" - gratuit - the choice is probably more for style, identification and distinction from otehr Office suites with two word names. Such as Open Office.

Sun, Feb 26, 2012 Alice Lipowicz

Regarding the complaint about "owns and operates," the VA states in the cited solicitation that it "owns and operates" the software in question. Apparently if that is an error it was also promulgated by the VA in its own document.

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