USDA puts finishing touches on IT overhaul

The Agriculture Department has completed the foundation of its Common Computing Environment, a Web-based system designed to bring the latest technology to farmers and USDA workers in the field.

By the end of the year, CCE officials expect to have in place the final piece of the puzzle — the e-mail system.

CCE is a modernization initiative to consolidate the field offices of the USDA's three service center agencies — the Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Rural Development — by providing a common set of desktop computers, applications and other technologies so farmers can get assistance at a single place instead of visiting three different agencies. Instead, they can get the information they need from any of the USDA's 2,700 field offices nationwide.

The agency this month deployed 3,000 servers to help consolidate separate directory services into one enterprise directory and more than 4,000 printers to help agency employees print geospatial data.

The servers are running Microsoft Corp. Windows Active Directory, which creates a single directory system for all users, said Scott Snover, CCE program manager. Previously, there were several separate directories and "trying to find someone's phone number and address was a real challenge," he said.

The final piece of the CCE implementation, the Microsoft Exchange e-mail system, will also use Active Directory. The USDA is currently equipping each field office with T1 communication lines to allow for much faster e-mail access.

"It's critical that today's farmers and ranchers have high-speed Internet and high-speed computer access to the USDA and to be able to operate their business from their home office," said Warren Clark, an agribusiness consultant in Chicago.

"It seems the USDA is really charging ahead to make sure that becomes a reality," Clark said. "You've got to have the basis in place."

Under a $32 million contract with the USDA, Hewlett-Packard Co. provided each county office with ProLiant ML370 servers for applications and storage. HP was also chosen for a server upgrade contract for more than $4 million in hardware and services.

In addition, HP provided printers for each location under a third $8 million contract, allowing USDA employees to print aerial photos, topographic maps and geospatial data. For instance, Natural Resources Conservation Service field employees will use the color printers to provide better natural resource information. The color layers will help represent soil types, grazing distribution and land use.

"There's a basis to jump off of now in this CCE," said Sean Kenis, HP's area manager for federal sales. "There are more pieces. CCE is a process, a road. This is a piece toward that."

Snover called the implementation phase one of the CCE program. Once that is completed, they will focus on upgrading and maintaining current technologies. Officials are currently working to replace systems purchased in 1998, two years after the conception of the CCE program.

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