Navy transitioning more than 200K users to new online collaboration platform next week

Officials expect some bumps along the way, but the Navy plans to onboard more than 200,000 users to a new cloud-hosted office suite starting next week.

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Commercial Virtual Remote (CVR), the online collaboration platform the Defense Department came to rely on throughout the pandemic, is shutting down in just a few weeks. But like the other services, the Navy realized fairly quickly that it can’t live without the new capabilities CVR introduced.

So instead of taking years to build a long-term replacement, its information technology community did it in just six months, and learned some lessons about agile software development along the way.

On June 1, the service plans to switch its CVR users — all 266,000 of them — over to the new environment, built under a project the Navy calls Operation Flank Speed.

And even though Flank Speed has been undergoing stress tests for the past month, the cutover could be a bit messy, said Mike Galbraith, the chief digital innovation officer for the Department of the Navy (DON).

“Things will go bump in the night. We’ve never done this — it’s a huge, complex endeavor,” he said Tuesday during the department’s annual IT conference in Norfolk, Virginia. “But I think the juice is worth the squeeze, and at the end of this, we will be very happy that we went through all these efforts.”

There’s not much of a choice at this point. CVR, the lightning-quick implementation of Microsoft Teams DoD launched at the beginning of the pandemic, was always meant to be a temporary solution. It’s already gotten several new leases on life, but extending it beyond its latest expiration date of June 15 would have cost $100 million for another six months of service.

The military services collectively realized another extension wasn’t in the cards toward the end of last year, and made it a priority to accelerate their plans to move to a permanent suite of cloud-hosted Microsoft 365 services.

Rear Adm. Susan BreyerJoyner, the DON’s deputy CIO for Navy IT matters said the focus, for starters, is replicating the collaboration services everyone came to rely on under CVR.

“Is that shy of the full Office 365 functionality? Absolutely. Are there reasons that we made that decision? Absolutely,” she said. “Today, CVR is operating on a waiver that allows us to process low-impact controlled unclassified information in a lower security environment. This new environment that we’re going to will not have that waiver, and we’re taking a very deliberate approach to make sure that we are properly protecting data.”

Current plans call for Flank Speed to handle data up to Impact Level 5 — the highest designation for unclassified information — by the end of this year.

But the CVR replacement capabilities are just the beginning. The Navy plans to use next week’s initial tranche as a building block to implement the rest of the Microsoft 365 suite in fairly short order, including for most the workforce that never used CVR.

Between now and September, officials plan to migrate the email and SharePoint services the Navy currently hosts in its own data centers to the new cloud environment. The roadmap also calls for Flank Speed to implement the rest of apps in the Microsoft 365 suite in September.

At that point, the Navy will bring another wave of 206,000 users onboard, many of whom have already been piloting those services. By the end of 2022, the service plans to start shutting down the government-owned data centers that now host services like email. Those divestments will cover at least some of the costs of implementing the new cloud services.

But BreyerJoyner cautioned those dates are a bit tentative. Since all of the new IT services will be hosted in an off-premises commercial cloud, the Navy needs to make sure it has sufficient network infrastructure for its users to reach the public internet.

That wasn’t an issue when a majority of users were working from home, connected directly to the internet.

“If we could be assured that the telework posture would remain about what it is today, with 40 to 60% of the workforce teleworking every day, we could absolutely give access to everybody tomorrow. But we don’t know that,” she said. “We have to plan for the worst-case scenario, which is that everybody is going to have to come back to work. That planning assumption arguably is conservative, but at the end of the day, we want to provide a usable service.”

Once the service is fully implemented, officials believe it will present a dramatically different experience from the one Navy users have had to settle for via the Navy-Marine Corps Intranet (NMCI).

Maximum email box sizes will balloon to 100 gigabytes. Alphabetical shared drives ought to become a thing of the past, since users will get up to a terabyte of cloud storage space, depending on their roles and needs. A web browser and a Common Access Card will be all they’ll need to get access to the full suite of tools from pretty much anywhere, and Flank Speed will add access via mobile devices as soon as July.

The Navy had already planned to implement those sorts of cloud-hosted capabilities, eventually. But as of last November, the projected timeline to start onboarding new users to what became Flank Speed was 24 months.

It quickly became apparent that the only way to beat the clock on CVR’s sunset would be to adopt a genuine agile development methodology and speed up the existing project, said Barry Tanner, the acting executive director for the Navy’s Program Executive Office for Digital and Enterprise Services (PEO Digital).

“When we were first trying to get a go-live date on the calendar, the risks of trying to get it done in less than 18 months were huge,” he said. “So the first thing we had to do was break it down into what exactly we were trying to deliver, and then set our teams loose on it. What we’ve learned throughout the process is that if you demonstrate what works and what doesn’t — if you test frequently, and if you identify the barriers to success early — you can knock them down faster, and you can accelerate. This has to be part of our DNA. We have to ensure that our teams are enabled to do good things, that we get out of the way, and remove the barriers in front of them. Flank Speed taught us that we can achieve significant results in short period of time and learn a lot while we do it. But it’s also told us that we have to be careful about how we adjust our own organization. It’s a big shift in culture to do things this way.”

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