Agriculture PC, tablet upgrades delayed by back paddock issues

The Australian Department of Agriculture is replacing its fleet of desktops with HP Minis running Windows 8, as the company also undertakes an HP tablet deployment.

The Australian Department of Agriculture is planning to replace its desktop fleet with HP Minis running Windows 8, commencing in July.

Agriculture is responsible for quarantine and biosecurity at Australia's borders, fishing, live-animal exports, abattoirs, and many other livestock and biosecurity requirements. The agency has 4,000 staff members working across 300 different locations, with an IT staff of 135 people.

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Graham Gathercole (Image: Supplied)

While many of its staff members are mobile workers out in the field assessing imports and other biosecurity issues, the agency also has many employees working from its offices around the country.

Agriculture chief information officer Graham Gathercole told ZDNet that after a significant period of system consolidation, a pilot rollout would commence from Sunday, with plans for a full rollout in July.

"We've been doing a few pilots around national office and in some of the regions. We're rolling out to the national office and some of these regional locations these new HP Minis -- they're a solid state PC. They run Windows 8 only. They've got fantastic speed, and they're smaller than a tablet, believe it or not," he said.

"It reduces the footprint for the staff. You don't have a PC sitting on your desk, just this tiny little box."

The pilot will involve replacing around 400 desktops in the department's national office in Canberra, before being expanded out to around 2,500 or 3,000 from July.

Gathercole said some desktops would not be replaced with HP Minis, but that the department would get Windows 7 PCs in order to accommodate specialist software that has not yet been upgraded to be compatible with Windows 8.

"There are a lot of people who have specialist software -- particularly the scientists -- and so we're giving them high-powered Windows 7 PCs. We're running a mixture of Windows 7 and Windows 8," he said.

Assistant secretary for strategy, architecture, and strategic project Debbie Lutter said there "wasn't much choice" in rolling out both Windows 7 and 8 to ensure compatibility for the specialist software.

"You either take it off them and leave them with nothing, or you leave them in a better state than they were by giving them a grunty box that runs their software and copes with that," Lutter said.

Gathercole said that in the 2016-17 financial year, the entire department will move to Windows 10.

The Department of Agriculture last week announced that it had begun a rollout of HP Elite tablets running Windows 8 in the field. Gathercole had confirmed to ZDNet a plan to deploy Windows 8 tablets over two years ago, but Lutter said Microsoft was reluctant to help the agency deploy tablets until it got its back end in order.

"When we originally talked with Microsoft, there was a real concern -- and they weren't particularly keen to help us at that stage, because we didn't have a back end," Lutter said.

"There was a lot of work we did in the back end. When we first got here, it's fair to say there was probably five of everything, and a lot of out-of-date servers and infrastructure."

The department needed to get to a stable environment, with the agency reporting 265 hours of outages costing around AU$160 million per day for industry while stock sat on docks.

Gathercole began an 18-month program of server virtualisation, deploying new environments so that the agency could use Direct Access to allow staff to access all of the department's services through the tablet.

"So all that work had to be done and then there was a whole lot of work around deciding what tablet to use, and which would serve our needs across all the regions. So that did take quite a long time," Lutter said.

"That's taken us nearly two years to work through. Getting Direct Access and Windows 8 to work in an enterprise environment and rejig, or re-energise, all those legacy applications," Gathercole added.

It came as the department consolidated its 70 communications services contracts into one AU$29 million contract with Optus.

The department also has a long-running contract with HP for IT services, but Gathercole said that wasn't the reason why he chose HP tablets.

"It didn't stop us looking at quite a number of tablets, though, including the Microsoft Surface. But the HP Elite pad has mobility -- Wi-Fi, LAN connectivity, and you can also run it off a SIM card," he said.

"The biggest issue we have potentially is some of the dodgy places we are in the far outback of Australia, where connectivity is an issue."

Windows was chosen so that staff could use the same environment they were accustomed to with the desktop.

"It is so much easier for us to have access to all those Microsoft Office-type capabilities and have proper network connectivities, just like your desktop," Gathercole said.

"The Apple iPads are really good, but you're basically going through two different environments, and editing documents is a bit more problematic in that situation."

The initial rollout has been for 500 tablets, but Gathercole said he expects another 1,200 to be out in the field by the end of this calendar year.

The Department of Agriculture has not yet begun measuring the efficiency of the tablets, but said that tasks, such as identifying pests on cargo ships, can be done in just minutes by emailing or uploading to a shared drive with scientists back in the office, instead of days.

"The guys in the field are 2 miles offshore, and they're taking photos of areas and sending those photos back to the scientists in the regional offices to decide if it is a pest that needs to be dealt with, or whether they can just let the ship come in," he said.

"It's almost instantaneous to make a decision on whether it is acceptable."

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