USDA Cultivates Web

Networking & services federal agency replaces its aging frame relay network.

It came down to betting the farm on the network. When the U.S. Department of Agricultures three main agencies decided to move to a Web-enabled architecture recently, it was clear the USDAs aging frame relay network had to make a major leap forward to support an exponential growth in traffic.

Deployed in 1998, the old 64K-bps frame relay network provided such slow response times for its 3,000 users that it sometimes took 2 hours for employees to process a loan application, according to Carol Henson, director of IT for the USDAs Rural Development Agency, in St. Louis.

In addition, the networks hub-and-spoke design—with 10 to 50 county offices connected to one of 162 hub sites, each linked to a central site in Kansas City, Mo.—provided many single points of failure, according to Jack Carlson, the team leader who oversaw the telecommunications upgrade and director of the USDAs Fort Collins, Colo., Information Technology Center.

Obsolete before it was even fully deployed, the old system finally met its demise in a government mandate to reduce paperwork and red tape. The order made Web-enabling business applications throughout the organization obvious—and it meant the USDA network had to go, officials said.

Today, as the USDA nears completion of its massive upgrade, the results are outpacing even the highest hopes of the systems architects. Beyond improving the current state of affairs at the USDA, new applications enabled by the new network technology are now being mulled that could make the agency look less like a stodgy government bureaucracy and more like a leading private-sector service provider.

"With the Freedom to E-File bill [of 2000] and the Government Paperwork Elimination Act, we moved aggressively on putting our business applications on the Web," Henson said. "We had new business applications ready, but the network couldnt sustain it. We let development get ahead of the network."

The effort to improve the network began with 10 IT groups supporting the USDAs RDA, Farm Service Agency and Natural Resources Conservation Service. In 2000, the USDA evaluated several alternatives, including five broadband networks, two satellite networks, a few meshed networks based on MPLS (Multiprotocol Label Switching) and several VPN (virtual private network) options.

After determining that the satellite options created latency issues and realizing that the preferred MPLS alternative was too costly, the USDA settled on a less expensive VPN network.

The telecom strategy group designed the Cisco Systems Inc.-powered VPN based on two-year projections for bandwidth requirements. After jumping through some big bureaucratic hoops, according to Carlson, the VPN was approved, and deployment began last October.

The VPN, expected to be completed by September, will provide some 2,500 service center offices with T-1 connectivity. Each field site will connect to Fort Collins, St. Louis and Kansas City, and the system now has no single point of failure, officials said.

Each field office or service center uses a Cisco 2651 XM router for connectivity to the three head-end sites, which use eight Cisco 7204 routers, two of which act as route reflectors or edge routers.

The USDA created a standard configuration for each office using a cabinet to store not only switches and routers but also network servers and tape backups. The agency sought to keep deployment time under a year, after a frustrating two-year battle to roll out the old frame relay network.

Along with creating consistent configurations, the USDA is also using Ciscos Cisco ISC (IP Solutions Center) V 3.0 Security Technology Module to help accomplish its goal. The ISC allows users to set up common configurations and push those out to remote sites, according to Henson.

The new network is expected to pay for itself by the middle of the third year of operation. "Twenty times the bandwidth for less than double the cost essentially was a no-brainer decision," Carlson said.

And new applications are being considered that will allow the three agencies to expand services to farmers, ranchers and rural communities.

The RDA, which provides lending for single-family housing, grants for communities and telecommunications infrastructure for rural areas, now allows customers to fill out forms online and view USDA properties in inventory. Customers can also be part of the electronic workflow, managing their accounts online in a way similar to MyYahoo, said Carlson.