VA CIO sheds light on search for Microsoft alternatives

EDITOR's NOTE: This article also was published on FCW.com.

The Veterans Affairs Department will not be discarding Microsoft Office any time soon, though it is exploring software alternatives and supplements, according to the agency’s Chief Information Officer Roger Baker.

“The VA is the second largest customer for Microsoft,” Baker said in a conference call with reporters on Feb. 24. “We absolutely will continue to use Microsoft for the foreseeable future.”

At the same time, in response to budget pressures and in keeping with the administration’s “Cloud First” policy, the VA is considering alternative software products, formats and licensing arrangements, Baker said. “My job is to maximize the efficiency of every dollar,” Baker said.

Specifically, the VA is looking at options for software for office automation, e-mail and document sharing, he added. Many other federal CIOs are interested in similar explorations, Baker said.

"We look at what organizations like GSA and IRS have done and from a cost standpoint, it's very attractive,” Baker said.

But the VA also has to consider the negatives involved in, say, switching e-mail accounts for hundreds of thousands of users, Baker added.

"We have to balance that with the prime mission, which is making certain that our health and benefits folks can continue to do their jobs productively every day," he said.

The VA issued an announcement on Feb. 17 asking vendors to submit information about possible alternatives to Microsoft Office productivity software.

Also in the call, Baker gave an update on the Integrated Electronic Health Record project being jointly run by the VA and Defense Department. The VA has asked for $169 million for the project in 2013, which Baker said includes development funding along with maintenance and operations funding.

The VA has begun moving digital medical records from its “VistA” records system into the Defense Information Security Agency’s data center. “The co-location in the same data center will make it easier to do data-level integration,” Baker explained.

The VA recently contracted with ASM Research to develop an enterprise service bus for the integrated system, which Baker said was the “heart” of the system serving as an interface for the data, applications and user interfaces.

Baker declined to comment on a stop-work order on the ASM Research contract.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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