USDA takes aim at infrastructure consolidation

The Agriculture Department’s CIO office has a simple focus over the next few years: infrastructure.

CIO David Combs’ plan is to take the complex issues, worry and costs out of the hands of the department’s agencies and offices, and let them concentrate on their mission priorities.

“We are infrastructure support, and my approach is [that] we are here to provide a service, and they pay for it,” he said yesterday at a lunch in Washington sponsored by the Association for Federal Information Resourses Management. “Ideally, they will get efficiencies and spend less money for e-mail and desktop services.”

The CIO’s office presented USDA management with three back-office areas that could be consolidated—LAN, e-mail and data centers—and they chose e-mail first.

“We did research and found that the e-mail would give us the biggest bang for the buck for the employees,” said Cheryl McQuery, USDA’s assistant chief information officer in charge of the initiative. “We found we have three platforms with five different versions. We want to get it down to Microsoft’s Exchange 2003 by October 2007.”

McQuery added that 76 percent of the employees already use Microsoft, while the other 24 percent use Lotus Notes or Novell.

USDA then will work on the other two areas. McQuery added she expects the Office of Management and Budget’s newest Line of Business for IT Infrastructure to play a role in consolidating their IT infrastructure as well.

Another area USDA is looking to consolidate is its IT service centers, said Bob Suda, the agency’s associate chief information officer.

Suda, who oversees Agriculture’s National IT Center in Kansas City, Mo., and the telecommunications and IT services offices, both of which are in Washington, said they have two offices performing hosting services and they are looking at reducing that to one. He also said they have three offices supporting telecommunications and want to take that down to one office.

Additionally, Suda said the three offices are aligning their infrastructures to support OMB’s Line of Business initiatives.

“That is one of our main driving forces. We are heavily involved in that discussion with OMB and the [General Services Administration],” he said.

The goal is to integrate the activities in a meaningful and smart way, while reducing costs and increasing efficiency, said Jerry Williams, Agriculture deputy CIO.

Combs added that this effort has been a tough sell at times, but they are gaining credibility with the agencies and offices throughout the department.

“We charted Bob’s group to make sure the service levels are as good [as] or better than before,” Combs said. “The Forest Service will tell you they’ve had some growing pains at first, but we are getting there.”

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