USDA’s Forest Service taking different approach to mobility

The Agriculture Department’s Forest Service is considering a bit of a different tact to going mobile.

Many agencies talk about using a virtual desktop interface (VDI) to enable employees to securely connect back to the network and applications through the cloud.

But Doug Nash, the Forest Service’s chief information officer, is testing the PC-on-a-stick concept for its mobile workforce.

“It’s essentially a specialized, highly-secure USB device that has a Windows 8 Forest Service imaged desktop on it,” he said. “It costs $200 to $300 to deploy and provision. As long as any employee has any kind of PC device, they can plug it in and their work is connected to the network, and it’s a very effective solution.”

He said it gives teleworkers and other mobile workers another option to work securely from anywhere, at anytime.

Nash said employees use USDA’s network, applications and save data back to the main database through the PC-on-a-stick’s secure connection.

“We have so many employees that are out in the field, out in the national forest and grasslands, fighting fires and doing research that having an easy, highly connected device to do field work will just save folks a lot of time,” Nash said.

Nash said the move to mobile isn’t all about PC either. The Forest Service conducted a test last year with Apple’s iPad where pilots in the aviation program used the tablet to pull up flight plans and maps.

“By the beginning of March, based on the success we had with the iPad pilot, we’ll be rolling out our mobile computing strategy and solutions architecture, and making it available to our employees adding to the toolkit iPads and iPhones,” he said. “One of the overarching principles around making iPads and other mobile technology, we are clearly budget constrained across the Forest Service so we want to avoid having iPads be almost this status symbol that you get it along with all this other technology you have. To the extent practical, we want the iPad to be an alternative device in lieu of a laptop.”

Nash said once the mobile infrastructure is fully built out, there is a subset of the Forest Service’s employees who would benefit from iPads in how they get their jobs done.

In addition to the government furnished devices, Nash said the Forest Service also supports the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) concept.

“There are some tricky issues we have to work through around the melding of personal information with work information, but that has been solved. Private industry is ahead of us on this and there are best practices for this,” he said. “Also, the whole e-discovery, litigation hold data, leakage protection piece we have to address. I don’t see any those as roadblocks. I don’t see this as a total replacement or solution for everything, but it’s absolutely a priority and solution in our toolbox. We expect to start a pilot on this later this spring and then as we work through these policy issues, scale it up from there.”

Aside from mobile, Nash said the Forest Service is working with its parent department to take advantage of potential efficiency initiatives.

For example, the Forest Service quickly saw the potential of the USDA’s move to email-as-a-service in the cloud, and worked with the International Technology Services organization to bring them onto the Forest Service’s helpdesk contract. Nash said USDA estimated it would save the agency about $1.2 million a year.

Nash said the Forest Service also is working with a telecommunications consolidator to reduce the number of data and voice accounts the bureau pays for, and how they manage the bills from the provider. Nash also is doing something similar with cell phone contracts and software enterprise licenses with an eye toward reducing costs and improving management.

Over the next year, USDA is emphasizing its bureaus move to three more enterprisewide services: print management, e-fax and data center consolidation.

“Under the print management services you pay on a per page basis and the hardware, the paper, the supplies are all taken care of through this contract,” he said. “We know, within the Forest Service, we are making assessments across our various sized units where that would practical. I think the larger offices it will be a better cost proposition than some of the smaller offices, because of their size and locations.”

The cloud underlies many of these efforts. Nash said the Forest Service will move its data centers to the USDA cloud, which includes both public and private services.

Nash said the bureau also is looking at how best to use different cloud services, including platform-, infrastructure-, storage- and software-as-a-service.

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