USDA Buying Microsoft Cloud Services

The Agriculture Department is moving its e-mail, document-sharing, and other collaboration tools to Microsoft's cloud infrastructure to save money and improve efficiency, USDA officials said today.

The USDA is moving 120,000 users to Microsoft Online Services, consolidating 21 different messaging and collaboration systems into one, said Chris Smith, the USDA's chief information officer.

The software-as-a-service deployment will include Microsoft Exchange Online for messaging and calendaring, Microsoft Office SharePoint Online for document collaboration, Microsoft Office Communications Online for instant messaging and Microsoft Office Live Meeting for Web conferencing.

The USDA plans to start the shift within the next four weeks, making it the first Cabinet-level agency to move its e-mail and collaboration applications to the cloud, a rapidly growing form of computing involving flexible, scalable services delivered over the Internet, officials said.

The announcement is another indication of what could be a growing trend by federal agencies turning to cloud services to save money and improve efficiency during a time of increasing belt-tightening.

Earlier this month, The General Services Administration announced it is moving e-mail and collaboration tools to the cloud, becoming the first federal agency to move e-mail to a cloud-based system agencywide. GSA officials expect the migration to the cloud to reduce inefficiencies and lower costs by 50 percent over the next five years.

The USDA migration is an effort to streamline agency messaging, reduce costs and improve efficiencies that build on the existing infrastructure.

"This is really about increasing collaboration and communications across the breadth of 120,000 users in 5,000 offices across the country and 100 countries around the globe to better deliver on the USDA's mission," Smith said in a statement.

The agency has a distributive workforce and diverse mission that includes resource management, homeland security, food safety and assistance for rural communities in creating prosperity and becoming self-sustaining, Smith said.

Employees at USDA will now be able to collaborate within and across mission areas, see colleagues' availability, choose the most appropriate medium to communicate in, and streamline messaging through improved capabilities for mass communications, USDA officials said.

"Basically, the car we owned was getting ready for a major engine overhaul," Smith is quoted saying on a Microsoft site. "All our servers were at least three years old. We're going from owning the car and paying for the tires, the oil, and the upkeep to basically buying a Zip car that's wherever we need it, whenever we need it."

Cloud messaging ready for prime time

Cloud messaging services are ready for prime time and USDA should be able to gain a number of efficiencies and cost reductions over the long term, said David Linthicum, CTO and founder of Blue Mountain Labs, an IT consulting firm.

However, "the cost reduction needs to come along with a reduction in existing messaging infrastructure, and thus reduction of licensing costs," he said. "If they are looking to run both systems in parallel, the return on investment may not be there," he noted. Many organizations run both the cloud and existing messaging systems because some users take too long to move, and that's not cost-effective, Linthicum said.

"The core strategy here should be to replace and improve, using the best-of-breed technology which in many instances is going to be cloud-delivered," he noted.

Over the past six months, USDA has worked closely with Dell and Microsoft on a comprehensive set of plans and actions required to successfully migrate 120,000-plus users to the cloud solution.

USDA expects to begin moving employees within the next four weeks and has granted Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) Authority to Operate (ATO) for the Microsoft cloud infrastructure, certifying that it provides a trustworthy foundation for operations.

Microsoft's cloud infrastructure recently achieved security certification required to provide federal agencies with cloud-based services, Mark Estberg, senior director of risk and compliance with the company's Global Foundation Services reported in a blog last week.

Microsoft's cloud infrastructure within the company's data centers operated by GFS has received FISMA accreditation. The cloud infrastructure provides a foundation for Microsoft cloud services, including Exchange Online and SharePoint Online. Those two services are still going through the FISMA certification and accreditation process, Estberg wrote.

"The [security] process for Microsoft Online services is ongoing and we expect to achieve it shortly," said Curt Kolcun, vice president of U.S. Public Sector at Microsoft. Microsoft has taken a methodical approach to achieve accreditation, not just for the foundational data centers but the applications that run on top of it, he said, noting that the company is working closely with USDA on security certification.

"It is a requirement by the USDA that we have in order for them to move forward," he said. "Obviously, they felt comfortable enough, based on where things are in the planning, to go public."

The task of migrating 120,000 users from each of the 24 USDA subagencies is no small feat. USDA's CIO Smith, chief technology officer and security organization are taking the lead in pushing the migration forward, working along with Microsoft, Kolcun said.

Each subagency has its own CIO and IT elements. So USDA's CIO office is working across the board with subagency managers to look at overall Microsoft Active Directory design, the migration from a security perspective and the overall supporting infrastructure, Kolcun said.

USDA has multiple messaging systems that need to be migrated. Anything of this scale and time takes an enterprise approach to achieve, Kolcun said, adding that he didn't know USDA's time frame for completing the migration.

The USDA's service will be housed on separate, dedicated infrastructure in secure Microsoft facilities. Physical access to systems will be limited by biometric access controls to a small number of individuals who, in compliance with International Traffic in Arms Regulations, must be citizens of the United States who have undergone rigorous background checks, including fingerprinting, Microsoft officials said.

About the Author

Rutrell Yasin is the senior technology editor of Government Computer News (