The USDA is the latest government agency to enter the cloud, and the battle over the cloud. The 120,000-person agency just announced a deal to move its email and collaboration tools to Microsoft Online Services.
This is the first time a cabinet-level agency is moving its work to the cloud. Last week, we reported on the GSA’s decision  to start using Google Docs and other cloud-based tools. That deal involved 15,000 employees.
“For us a move to the cloud was a question of performance, service, and cost, and this solution will help us streamline our efforts and use taxpayer dollars efficiently,” USDA Chief Information Officer Chris Smith said. The deal involves Microsoft Exchange Online for messaging and calendaring, SharePoint Online for document collaboration, Office Communications Online for instant messaging, and Office Live Meeting for Web conferencing.
The move, which affects 5,000 offices across the U.S. and in 100 countries around the world, is slated to begin in the next month. One of the advantages Smith highlighted was the fact that Microsoft will now be responsible for maintaining the tools. “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,” he said.
The deal is a coup for Microsoft, which has been battling with Google over the government market in cloud services. Over 500 state and local governments already use Microsoft cloud services, including the state of California and the city of New York. Microsoft vice president of U.S. Public Sector Curt Kolcun hoped more federal agencies would come on board. “I think this announcement is going to be a phenomenal catalyst to drive more interest from the federal CIO community,” he said.