Teamwork speeds tech overhaul

Scott Charbo had to persuade 3,000 offices to buy the same hardware and software.

Olivier Douliery

Within the year, the Agriculture Department plans to have 2,824 service centers connected on the Web, bringing a 10-year technology overhaul to fruition.

Scott Charbo, USDA's CIO, said teamwork has been a key to implementing the Service Center Modernization Initiative to update IT, and the Common Computing Environment to integrate and consolidate IT at field offices.

Scott Snover, project manager for Agriculture's CCE, said officials had to cooperate in the nearly 3,000 county field offices that comprise the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Farm Service and Rural Development agencies.

'It was daunting to work across three agencies whose leadership in each state was different,' he said.

Agriculture put together teams from each agency to implement CCE. They had to assemble the funding, set milestones and review progress.

'We've also involved field people, 26 representatives from field unions and associations because they bring a field perspective to it,' said Bill Gardner, senior policy adviser for the USDA's Service Center Modernization project and chairman of the department's management IT working group.

The field offices connected computer and phone systems to centralized LANs and WANs, but they still use slow network connections.

USDA's frame relay network has 56-kbps links. 'Everything goes into one connection point in Kansas City, Mo., and we have offices with 15, 20, 30 people sharing that 56K line,' Snover said.
The department plans to speed things up by having each office connect to the Internet via centers in Fort Collins, Colo., Kansas City, Mo., and St. Louis. The payroll protakes place through a center in New Orleans, which also will be a major node on the network.

Remote decoders

The centers use IBM Informix and DB2, plus Oracle databases.

'The new environment will be a T1 connection. Users will have an encryption client in the county field offices that will encrypt the traffic and decrypt it at one of those three locations,' Snover said.

One of the first problems in the consolidation was getting each of the nearly 3,000 offices to buy the same hardware and software, Charbo said.

Administrators had to migrate to a common operating system.

Each office had systems that connected to one of the three major agencies, which weren't interoperable. Farm Services' network ran under IBM's System/36 operating system, NRCS used Unixware, and Rural Development used Microsoft Windows 3.1.

In 1998, Agriculture began purchasing 46,000 desktop and notebook computers for the project. High-end desktop PCs in the environment were Dell Precision workstations. Other desktop machines in the project were Dell OptiPlex and Gateway E-3400 and E-4200 PCs. Notebook PCs installed through CCE were from Dell Computer Corp. and Gateway Inc.

All came installed with Microsoft Windows NT and Microsoft Office 97 software.

Over the past year, USDA has deployed 3,000 servers running Microsoft Windows 2000 and Active Directory to connect the field offices. The new servers included both Compaq ProLiant and IBM AS/400 models.

Snover said the offices eventually will upgrade to Microsoft Windows XP, Exchange Server and Operations Manager.

'It's in the process of implementation,' Gardner said.

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