The Navy thinks it has some answers to the “fix our computers” problem, and those answers can’t come soon enough. Officials estimate the service is losing about one man-year of productivity every single day by virtue of how long it takes employees to log into their desktops and laptops — and that figure only accounts for the service’s workforce within the five walls of the Pentagon.
The Navy’s latest attempt to improve user experience will also start inside the Pentagon, where all of its users could start seeing major improvements by next month. That choice was made partly because, for even the most senior leaders there, the experience is far from good.
“The chief of naval operations sent my previous boss emails two weeks in a row saying it takes 10 minutes to log in, and there are all these problems,” Capt. Sean O’Lone, the senior military assistant to the Department of the Navy CIO told attendees at the annual DON CIO conference in Norfolk, Va. Thursday. “When the CNO starts emailing the CIO directly about his personal experience, we’ve got to fix that.”
The fixes could start as soon as next week. Over the next two weeks, the Navy plans to roll out new devices — with new network connectivity methods — to 50 of its “most demanding” IT users in the Pentagon. Those devices will be managed by Flank Speed, the Navy’s instantiation of Microsoft 365.
O’Lone said one big difference is the new devices will come with a much more streamlined set of software. When it comes to poor user experience, Navy officials think software bloat is a much bigger problem than outdated hardware.
“There’s lots of discussion and theories about how doubling the RAM in our computers, or having faster processors, is going to solve all our problems,” he said. “But in the end, we just have a ton of stuff on those devices. So we are putting a clean Windows version on it without a whole bunch of excess stuff, and it is performing far, far better. So it is not that end device that is really holding us back, it’s that we just loaded it down with a whole bunch of stuff. If we get a cleaner machine, we will get way better performance.”
Another big difference: The new devices will, for most purposes that don’t require access to the Navy-Marine Corps Internet (NMCI), bypass NMCI entirely and use a more direct path to the public internet to access Flank Speed, which is hosted in a Microsoft cloud environment.
That’s partly a lesson learned from the Navy’s experience with COVID. When the Defense Department rolled out Commercial Virtual Remote, the predecessor to the military services’ current Microsoft 365 environments, Navy officials quickly found out that the user experience was vastly better when people were working from home than when they tried to access those cloud services at work via NMCI.
O’Lone said if the initial tests go as planned, the Navy intends to convert all of its Pentagon users to the new Flank Speed-based devices by June 15.
But replicating that transition for the rest of the Navy’s users is potentially more complicated. That’s mainly because of what IT officials say is a big “last mile” connectivity problem on Navy bases, where communications infrastructure tends to be fairly ancient and still uses circuits based on decades-old time division multiplexing technology.
“I think we’ve done a pretty good job on the shore side of upgrading the off-base transport — that infrastructure is really showing a great improvement,” said Skip Hiser, the CIO for the Navy’s Fleet Forces Command. “But then we hit the installation, and we have decades-old stuff in the ground. It might be twisted-pair copper, it might be multi-mode fiber, it might be single-mode fiber, it’s a variety of stuff. If we try to upgrade all the installations and their infrastructure, it’s going to be billions of dollars, which is just not in the budget. So what’s the alternative? It might be new construction, it might be hybrid solutions involving fiber and wireless. But it really takes a survey of each individual base to understand that infrastructure and how you’re going to upgrade it.”
Hiser said wireless technologies like 5G might be an answer that can be quickly deployed in some places, at relatively low cost. In others, even wireless is very difficult.
“In the Pentagon, you might say, ‘Maybe I’ll just throw 5G in there and everybody’s online now.’ But the Pentagon — just like my maritime operations center, is like a Faraday cage. 5G doesn’t penetrate very far into the building,” he said. “I may have to put a lot of wireless nodes in that facility to be able to extend that. So we really have to understand the infrastructure, what has to be done. It may be using some existing stuff and upgrading other stuff.”
But Justin Fanelli, the technical director for the Navy’s Program Executive Office for Digital and Enterprise Services, said the service is committed to solving those problems, and is confident it can do so.
He said the Navy has 21 pilot projects underway on the topic of user experience this year, with the last mile problem as one of the main features.
“We want to take the burden off of the IT. Customer experience is number one, and then operational resilience in peacetime and wartime, and that includes things like [transport] diversity. Those are the two mission outcomes that IT should be invisibly solving in the background,” he said. “So the way that we have that conversation with every single vendor at this point is, ‘How do you help? What are your dependencies, and what is the overall impact to user time lost?’ And second, the cost per user overall. We’re not trying to drive that to zero, but we want to make sure that’s in a reasonable range.”