Ahead of Windows 10 migration, Army’s helpdesk girds for surge of tech support calls

The Army doesn’t yet know all the specific technical challenges it’ll run into during the massive migration of virtually all of its PCs to Windows 10 over the next year, but two things are certain: the endeavor will generate a surge of tech support calls, and the Army’s helpdesk isn’t equipped to handle them today.

Since 2012, the Army has been looking to cut its IT support costs by building a “federated” enterprise service desk. Its job is to churn out self-help guides and become the single point of contact whenever users encounter IT glitches they can’t fix on their own.

But even now —on a good day — its tier one technicians only manage to resolve 10 percent of the problems users are calling about.

“In the commercial world, you’d probably see that up around 85 percent,” said Dennis Kelly, the Army’s product director for enterprise computing, whose responsibilities include the worldwide enterprise service desk. “The difference is we aren’t standard in the Army. Historically, we grew our IT services from the installation or even the sub-installation level, so the knowledge is different depending on where you are. The agents either don’t have the permissions or the knowledge to solve it on the first call. They have to refer it back locally.”

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That’s expected to present a particular challenge between now and the second quarter of 2017, when the Army hopes to complete most of the Windows 10 migration. Officials expect it to be at least as large and complicated an undertaking as the service’s last enterprise-wide IT initiative, when it moved almost all of its 1.4 million users to a centralized email system in 2011 and 2012.

“There’s more detail, more infrastructure, more interdependencies with the Windows 10 rollout than there was with Enterprise Email,” Kelly told AFCEA’s recent TechNet conference in Augusta, Georgia. “If we do nothing, we’re going to be the recipients of a huge spike of incidents that’s going to occur as Windows 10 is rolling out, and our agents will be grappling with, ‘I don’t know, I need to refer it to Tier 2,’ and Tier 2 will have to refer it to Microsoft.’”

Kelly said his division, part of the Army program executive office for enterprise information systems (PEO-EIS), has begun to take proactive steps to avoid that scenario, including by building on the federated approach it’s already taken to the enterprise service desk. Instead of growing a new IT support organization entirely from scratch, the Army elected to use the existing helpdesks at its signal commands and augment them with extra resources.

For example, one particular security feature within Windows 10 clamps down on the means Army IT administrators currently use to install new software on a PC from a remote location, requiring that the software be installed by a trusted source. That task will be delegated to the 5th Signal Command.

“That’s because they have a mature network and service desk and they are linked to the [System Center Configuration Manager],” Kelly said. “So what will happen is a user will call the service desk?The ticket will move to another part of the service desk with SCCM privileges and load it onto the machine. That’s the kind of method that will occur and have to be standard as Windows 10 rolls out.”

Another common issue the Army is anticipating: Windows 10, by default, ships with the ability to play some Xbox games on a PC. In the master version of the operating system, the Army is deploying to government-owned computers, that functionality is disabled, for obvious reasons.  Users looking for the Xbox app will still see an icon, but clicking on it will return an error message.

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“We’re going to have a lot of people who click on Xbox and then call the enterprise service desk to say it doesn’t work,” Kelly said. “We want to suppress those kinds of calls, so we will put knowledge articles together on a landing page that’ll say, ‘We’re in the Army, we don’t use that. Don’t bother.’ But those are the sorts of things we’re going to have to do in a standard way across the Army. If we do, we’ll get ahead of this and suppress a lot of the costs involved in doing this implementation.”

Officials expect the helpdesk to become more helpful once the Army, as a whole, transitions more of its information technology away from base-specific technologies and implementation models. That’s already happened with email, and the enterprise service desk is up to speed with those issues and ones involving mobile devices or other initiatives that span every post, camp and station, like the Defense Enterprise Portal Service.

Indeed, within U.S. Army Europe, the helpdesk already manages to solve users problems on the first call 65 percent of the time. U.S. European Command served as an early testbed for DoD’s Joint Information Environment, and many of the IT systems on installations there are tightly-integrated with one another, compared with facilities in the continental U.S.

Stateside, the same is true for the Army Reserve and Army Medical Command.

Until the rest of the Army’s scattered IT systems become more enterprise-like under the JIE initiative, the service had considered outsourcing all of its helpdesk services to a single contractor that does this sort of thing for a living, much as the Navy has done as part of its Navy-Marine Corps Intranet.

“But a few things happened along the way,” Kelly said. “It wasn’t clear we had the legal authority to do that, there certainly wasn’t the money to do that, and there was a lot of cultural and institutional resistance to doing that. It was hard enough to get the 44 installations served by 7th Signal Command all on one service desk, and that took four years. That’s when the Army CIO realized that we actually had already built a number of enterprise-capable desks, and we should relabel them as part of the enterprise service desk. We’re working with them in this federation around enterprise processes, and over time, we’ll wrap them in common technology like trouble ticketing, workforce management and call management.”

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