Fresh PCs yield benefits for USDA field offices

New software 'will make our system more cohesive and work together instead of being disjointed,' Scott Snover says.

A common computing infrastructure unites three agencies on one OS and improves customer service to farmers

The Agriculture Department expects by year's-end to have replaced more than 40,000 computers at thousands of field offices. The infrastructure upgrade, which USDA calls its Common Computing Environment, will link IT systems at previously unconnected service centers.

USDA is consolidating the field offices of the Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service and Rural Development agency so farmers will be able to receive all the services they provide without having to visit different offices.

The Common Computing Environment will establish a uniform IT investment strategy, telecommunications service and IT support organization. The agencies also will use standard office automation software and administrative applications.

USDA had difficulty connecting the IT systems of the three agencies because they ran on three different operating systems. Farmers coming in to apply for programs still had to provide information separately to the three agencies although they were under the same departmental roof, said Scott Snover, project manager for the Common Computing Environment, who is based in Fort Collins, Colo.

'We have moved from that different computing environment to a common infrastructure,' he said. The new infrastructure includes desktop PCs running Microsoft Windows, servers running Windows 2000 and Microsoft enterprise management software.

Big shopping list

Three-quarters of service center computers have been upgraded to Windows XP, and USDA recently ordered 23,500 PCs as replacements for computers bought in 1998, Snover said. By the end of the year, USDA expects to have bought 46,300 desktop and notebook PCs and 3,000 servers since 2002 from Dell Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Gateway Inc. 'Then we will be able to turn on our common e-mail and use our Microsoft enterprise tools,' he said.

New computers will better support geographic applications, a major component that will make service center agencies more efficient. 'Everything we do is tied to some point on land,' he said. Integrating Global Positioning System service with Agriculture IT systems will help the department manage information about customers and map natural resources more effectively.

A major challenge confronting the agencies is how to provide IT help desk support to far-flung field offices, such as one in Bozeman, Mont., which is a five-hour drive from the closest IT shop. Of 3,000 field offices in 50 states and territories, only 500 have an IT staff, Snover said. The main service center help desks are in Fort Collins, Kansas City, Mo., and St. Louis.

History of hardware

USDA integrated its help desk systems with virtual help desk software from Network Associates Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif.

The Magic Service Desk software, which provides a standardized Web platform, helps manage IT problems by centralizing, in a Microsoft SQL Server database, the service history of each piece of hardware.

This makes it easier for Agriculture IT staff to track if a piece of hardware or an application has had repeated problems, and if those problems are shared across one office or among all computers of a specific make and model.

'The software will make our system more cohesive and work together instead of being disjointed,' Snover said.

Systems standardization will let IT staff in any USDA location access the database and help with a field office problem. IT staff can populate the database with other useful information, such as frequently asked questions and updates about viruses.

Snover said he hopes to reduce the number of phone calls and e-mails that help desks receive. The Fort Collins IT desk got 27,000 complaints last year, he said.

In the next phase of the Common Computing Environment, USDA plans to buy tablet PCs for service center field staff, who often work outside the office for the entire day. 'You can't go out into a cornfield with laptops,' Snover said.

Using tablet PCs equipped with Global Positioning System receivers, field workers will be able to pinpoint their locations and measure acreage while out in the field.

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