Collaboration, cloud leading to consolidation of 17 USDA networks

USDA CIO Jonathan Alboum will take part in an Ask the CIO free online chat on July 26 at 2 p.m. Sign up today.

The Agriculture Department will be among the first large agencies to use the next-generation telecommunication contract currently going through the procurement process.

USDA is looking to the General Services Administration’s NS2020 umbrella vehicle to finally consolidate more than 15 disparate networks.

Jonathan Alboum, USDA’s chief information officer, said this initiative is more of a network modernization effort than consolidation effort.

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“Some of the challenges that any large complex, federated organization will have with a thing like this is you are moving from 17 networks into one, or maybe not one, but certainly far fewer and the way we do work is really going to be different,” Alboum said. “So there is a lot of change management that you have to be prepared for and in some respects, it’s far more important than the technology. Today, we manage networks in so many organizations there are a lot of people doing this work. One of the things we need to do is come up with a concept of operations about how we are going to operate in an environment where not every agency has its own network to manage.”

Among the biggest changes will be understanding who manages the local area network. Who manages the wide-area network? And who manages the applications?

Alboum said in the end, it doesn’t matter who is in charge, but what’s most important is the process by which those decisions are made that respects the diversity and mission and operational requirements.

“The success or failure will be based on buy-in from our agencies, and we need to take approaches that create a shared ownership of this new network, of this modernization effort,” he said. “The most important steps we are taking right now are directly engaging our agencies and forming, in the spirit of our CIO Council, collaborative teams with employees from the CIO offices and employees from all the agency organizations and letting the agencies lead this conversation in a lot of ways.”

Alboum said his longer-term goal is to get to one network that uses leading-edge technologies such as software-defined networking, cloud and security services.

USDA issued a request for information earlier this year to begin the discussions with industry about network modernization.

Alboum said shortly after GSA awards the Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions (EIS) contract USDA will begin the discussions with industry to get more clarity behind it’s network modernization effort. GSA currently is reviewing proposals, recently issued a transition handbook and is expected to make awards later this summer.

This isn’t the first time a USDA CIO tried to consolidate agency networks. Previous CIOs, including Cheryl Cook and Chris Smith, have tried to address these same issues. Cook, for instance, led an effort to create a single help desk across the department. Smith consolidated USDA’s 21 separate email systems in the cloud in 2011.

Along with the network modernization effort, Alboum said taking more advantage of cloud computing is another major and related priority.

He said USDA already runs several large data centers in three locations that server as private clouds in some ways.

“Many of our agency CIOs want to explore commercial cloud options,” he said. “We want to embrace the commercial cloud along with the platform-as-a-service options we’ve developed at National Information Technology Center (NTIC), and ultimately I expect to have some kind of hybrid environment.”

Alboum said Tony Cossa, the new director for cloud strategy and policy, will lead this effort, including working with Microsoft to create a dev/test environment in Azure. Alboum said Cossa also will work with Amazon Web Services to develop a similar environment, and both the Microsoft and Amazon efforts will lead to cloud production environments.

“I think that will give the agencies good options. Not every application should be in the cloud, necessarily, and not everything needs to be hosted in the USDA data center, there are a lot of reasons for making one decision or another,” he said. “We are trying to take away some of the personality-driven elements from that decision-making process, and break it into more of a decision tree, if you will, based on security requirements or functionality or the kinds of people who are accessing the system. We want to get it into the right place based on the requirements and not based on whether I like this service or that service or want people in my data center.”

Alboum said the goal with cloud, and technology more broadly at USDA, is to take a holistic approach to choosing and implementing IT in a collaborative fashion.

Along those same lines, USDA has focused over the last few years to reduce duplicative software.

Alboum said over the last three years the agency has saved or avoided spending about $9 million by reworking its email archiving contract and consolidating the contract for the agency’s emergency notification system subscription service.

“In the past month or so, we had a really big win with one of our important software vendors. We had an opportunity to take a look across a blanket purchase agreement that we have where many agencies were buying a particular product from one vendor and we saw we were paying lots of different prices for the same things,” he said. “By sharing that data, we were able to get a consolidated view of this particular software at USDA and that gave us great leverage having that conversation with the software company and were able to reduce our overall spend. At the same time, that company was set up to do a lot more business at USDA because there is a good understanding of what it costs, how it could be used and where it could be used.”

Alboum said that one example showed the potential of having that same kind of data review and discussion with other vendors.

“The long term is category management and establishing that software license manager who has access into purchasing across organizations–again, something that is made easier through Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act,” he said. “We have to figure out where to target, where do we see good opportunity to drive better pricing through collaboration and good conversations with our vendors.”