USDA installs new hardware at service centers

USDA installs new hardware at service centers

Elements of USDA's Common Computing Environment

  • 2,700 Compaq ProLiant ML370 servers
  • 1,615 Dell Precision Workstation 330 desktop PCs
  • 6,920 Dell OptiPlex GX240 desktop PCs
  • 2,052 Dell Latitude C600 notebook PCs

  • The Agriculture Department has begun in-stalling network servers at service centers nationwide'the first piece of shared technology under its ambitious Common Computing Environment project.

    'Two hundred sites are already installed,' said William Gardner, senior policy adviser for service implementation.
    To date, the department has installed thousands of servers linking more than 10,000 desktop and notebook PCs at 3,100 locations.

    CCE will support a common set of desktop computers, applications and other technologies at service centers. The goal of the project is to provide a one-stop service for farmers nationwide, rather than requiring them to file for services at three USDA agencies: the Farm Services Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Rural Development. Until now, farmers had to file separate applications with the three agencies, each with the same information.

    With CCE, farmers will be able to apply for federal programs online, and the three agencies will share data.

    For instance, if a farmer owns land in more than one county, he no longer must go to offices in each county for service.

    'For a loan issue, if a farmer goes to a field office which has no Rural Development staff, he will be able to get some information even though he may not be able to close the loan,' Gardner said. 'So there will be some level of service from all agencies at one office.'

    Long road

    The department has struggled for years to implement the project. Planning began in 1996. The department says it expects to meet the 2003 deadline for fully implement ing the Freedom to E-file Act.

    The law, passed in 2000, requires USDA by 2003 to have a system in place that lets users retrieve and file all forms electronically.

    Gardner said the project will yield many benefits for the department. For instance, county offices will have a common, upgraded e-mail and calendar system.

    If a farmer visiting a Rural Development office needs information from an NRCS worker, an RD employee can use the calendar to check the worker's availability.

    Agriculture also will develop a customer information database to let centers share information such as farmers' names, addresses, telephone numbers, the land they own and programs they participate in. USDA offices will also share data on hydrology, land and transportation demographics.

    CCE will use remote management tools to save technical workers time in maintaining systems.

    'When they [service centers] have to upgrade software, they have to send IT people to the centers,' Gardner said. 'Now, from central locations, we can simply push the software.'

    The feature is particularly helpful because the department has to upgrade program applications frequently, he said.

    Don Gearing, labor adviser to the National Food and Agriculture Council, a management group designated by the secretary of Agriculture to carry out USDA's field restructuring and modernization effort, said the department's employees support CCE.

    'They believe that if CCE is done correctly, then it is the best tool that they could possibly have,' he said, but he warned that it could create problems if it is implemented improperly.

    'We basically have the hardware in place, but the big unknown yet is whether we will be able to get the software together, whether we will be able to provide a seamless environment that helps employees provide services,' he said.

    The matter is complicated further by a shortage of IT workers that is being felt throughout the federal government. Since 1993, USDA's IT work force has shrunk by 22 percent, and the workload has gone up 78 percent at the service centers.

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