By Brandon O'Connor, Pointer View Assistant EditorDecember 28, 2018
The New Year means big changes for the U.S. Military Academy as it makes upgrades to its website, network and cyber presence.
Changes have slowly been rolling out over the last few months as the academy started the transition from USMA.edu email addresses to WestPoint.edu addresses operated through Microsoft's Office 365 platform.
The transition to Office 365 will allow cadets, faculty and staff to collaborate on projects and share information anytime, anywhere and on any device through the cloud rather than being restricted to network capable devices.
"Security is paramount, but we also think that enabling IT in a way that people can work in the environment that we are used to now, which is work anywhere on any device, we are getting closer and closer to that as time passes," said Col. Edward Teague, West Point's Chief Information Officer.
West Point is currently serving as a pilot program for the Army by switching its network and email from Department of the Defense controlled systems to commercially owned and operated ones.
The wholesale changes were instigated in the summer of 2015 after consistent problems plagued West Point's email and network systems. While trying to fix the immediate problems, Teague said they dug deeper and realized that the consistent issues and tight security measures were impacting the way West Point did business and its ability to compete with peer universities such as Harvard, Yale and Stanford.
The process of fixing the issues began in earnest in November 2016 and will continue for the next three to five years as West Point adds more network lines while going from .Mil systems to .Edu systems, rolls out a new cloud-based email, overhauls its website and more.
"We are the Army's only university, so my peers are Penn State, Harvard and Yale. My peer is not the CIO at the 18th Airborne Corps. I have to set the staff, faculty and cadets up here for success by giving them appropriate IT that is commiserate with the number one public university in the United States," Teague said. "We identified that there was a divide between what we needed to do as a university, as an academy, when you think about the university education missions versus what has to happen to be a military unit on a military network."
The goal of the program, along with setting up West Point for success, is to serve as a model to the Army of what can be accomplished using commercial systems instead of building and running everything in house. West Point's changes will take place throughout fiscal year 2019, then be optimized in fiscal year 2020, before collecting and analyzing data on the changes starting in fiscal year 2021.
"They are curious about what is a core competency. It made a lot of sense for us to manage our own email system a long time ago because not a lot of people had it and you couldn't really buy something off the shelf. Now, you can," Teague said. "We are looking at what are those core competency that the Army doesn't have to be in charge of. I submit that email is one of them. I submit that websites are another and storage. These are commodities that you should be able to buy."
The biggest change to an outside observer will be the new academy website. The completely revamped site was launched Dec. 20 at the web address WestPoint.edu, part of a branding transition from USMA to West Point. The website redesign breaks free of the Army division mold of being a static site with basic information to a living site that is updated and used as your home for everything you need to know about the academy.
"It has taken considerable work to get to this point and has been a massive team effort from the entire academy," Maj. Ireka Sanders, Deputy Director of Public Affairs, said of the new website. "It is exciting to finally see 'Westpoint.edu' come to fruition. It is also only the beginning. Every day, the site will be refined and improved to become better, stronger and more precise in hitting our communications objectives."
Starting in January and continuing through 2019, West Point will also be breaking free from the DOD controlled .Mil network onto a commercially managed .Edu network. The network will be the same one used by Stanford and the New York higher education system, Teague said.
The goal with the changes is to enable cadet, faculty and staff to be competitive with their peers by having access to sites and information they need without facing the restrictions of a DOD network. As part of the changes, they are also upgrading wireless capabilities throughout the academy, particularly in the barracks, to enable cadets to collaborate without being tied down to a wired connection.
The network changes are also part of the pilot program, which will demonstrate to the Army the ability to secure a cloud based system, while at the same time enabling a free flow of ideas and greater accessibility.
"What we need is security that enables us," Teague said. "It is the difference between identifying that there is risk outside so we shouldn't go outside because it is big and dark and scary and it is big and dark and scary out there so I am going to put myself in a tank and I am going to do what I want, how I want and where I want. That is the kind of security we are going for."
West Point has the advantage, unlike units in the field, of not handling classified information on a regular basis, which allows more network freedom. Teague said the end goal though is to enable the wider Army to expand its capability by building on what West Point is doing and ways to secure it to a greater extent.