IT Maintenance Creed: Have Support, Will Travel
- By John Moore, John Monroe
- May 18, 1997
In the Pacific Rim logistical hurdles time differences and the sheer geography of the region push an information technology vendor's support structure to its limits.Calls to technical support hot lines come in many forms but in the rim they may be from ships thousands of miles out at sea.
Electronic Data Systems Corp. recently received a help-desk SOS involving a Military Sealift Command vessel that severed the cabling on its fiber-optic local-area network while at sea. EDS which had provided the LAN equipment under its Navy PC LAN+ contract went into network rescue mode. The company dispatched technicians to Guam to rendezvous with the ship and repair the broken cables.
The seaborne LAN repair job underscores the challenges facing IT vendors supporting Defense Department customers in the Pacific Rim. To overcome the obstacles of space and time vendors are employing technologies ranging from the workaday telephone to sophisticated Internet-based applications. But in some cases there is simply no substitute for having people ready to go the extra mile - or nautical mile as the case may be.
In EDS' case the company has worked out a maintenance agreement with the Military Sealift Command under PC LAN+. "If a ship has an outage and needs repair work they let us know where their next port is and we will [send] spares and people " said Peter Buck the PC LAN+ program manager at EDS. "When the ship comes in they go right on board and fix the problem. We can support the customer at their convenience."
But vendors also are using technology to help customers rather than relying solely on hands-on support.
BTG Inc. for example uses technology extensively to support its DOD customers in the Pacific and worldwide. Working over either classified or unclassified defense networks - depending on who the customer is - BTG provides such services as configuration management software upgrades and software patches all on a remote basis. Among other programs the company supports about 4 500 end users electronically under the Joint Deployable Intelligence Support System (JDISS) program.
Only recently has such sophisticated support been a possibility said Diana Akins who spent nearly 18 years in the field - 12 years with BTG and six years with E-Systems - before being promoted to BTG's JDISS deputy program manager last year. "When I first started doing these things we didn't have this kind of connectivity " Akins said. "It wasn't there or it wasn't reliable " but that changed after the Persian Gulf War she said.
For many vendors around-the-clock telephone hot lines are the first line of support.
Hughes Data Systems operates a seven-days-a-week 24-hours-a-day central help desk in Montgomery Ala. to support its Air Force Desktop V customers noted Tom Walters Hughes' Desktop V program manager. Help-desk personnel assess the customer's problem and determine whether on-site maintenance providers need to be sent.
Similarly EDS has a seven-days-a-week 24-hours-a-day telephone-based support operation in Herndon Va. that supports the PC LAN+ pact. The help-desk personnel dispatch spares and personnel as needed. But EDS also does trouble-shooting by phone. In one case a telephone consultation fixed a problem that would have otherwise called for EDS to fly a technician to the carrier USS Constellation.
Novell Inc. also offers seven-days-a-week 24-hours-a-day support but in many cases the company is able to head off calls by giving users direct access to technical information either through CD-ROM or increasingly through the World Wide Web noted Michael P. McLaughlin director of the government systems group at Novell. Novell mails out monthly a CD-ROM called the NetWare Support encyclopedia that includes bug fixes software patches and updates on ongoing technical problems.
On its Web site Novell posts a broad range of technical material as well as information about many common problems and how to solve them. The Web has proved even more valuable for remote customers because the information is available whenever needed regardless of location McLaughlin said.
Indeed the Web is emerging as a key support tool in the Pacific Rim.
In another example Informix Software Inc. has allowed a Navy customer to manage the electronic distribution of its database software via an intranet. An enterprise software license deal with the Navy's Tomahawk mission-planning and targeting groups allows the customer to possess and copy a golden master of Informix's software which the customer can post on an intranet for user access.
The Web also has eased the burden in the Pacific of making commodity purchases said Jeff Armstrong an account executive for international sales at Govern-ment Technology Services Inc. The company's GTSI Online Web site allows users to look up product information and even make purchases off the company's contracts through the Internet. "I don't know if [Pacific Rim customers] are ordering a lot of products off it but they are using it to research products " Armstrong said.
GTSI Online has been a boon for users in the Pacific who do not have easy access to GTSI personnel. "Until the advent of GTSI Online we made and sent out catalogs once a year and once a catalog was printed it was already out of date " he said.
Under Desktop V Hughes recently completed a pilot program with the Air Force in which the vendor demonstrated the use of the Internet for ordering products. Using Hughes' Desktop V Web site customers will be able to generate a configuration validate the configuration and create an authorized order according to Hughes' Walters. He said the Internet service will speed Pacific Rim orders which in the past were mailed to the Air Force's Standard Systems Group in Montgomery.
Still in the field or at sea IT contractors must deal with the limits of technology. "The concept is excellent but everyone will tell you the challenge remains [communications] bandwidth there is never enough bandwidth " Akins said. The constraints change depending on the specific site. Band-width is "fine if you are on a cruiser but if you are on a destroyer forget it it is no better now than it was 10 years ago " she said and the same limits apply to submarines.
When technology doesn't cut it vendors turn to on-site support and maintenance personnel. BTG typically has seven to 12 representatives in the field for on-site support. In addition to its on-site representatives BTG also employs a "tiger team" of technical experts who travel the globe to provide quick fixes wherever necessary Akins said.
Sterling Software Inc. meanwhile has about 20 people in the field in South Korea as part of a program that supports the military intelligence community.
While these vendors deploy their own employees for on-site support others tap subcontractors for that role. EDS for example looks to Astronautics Corp. as its primary warranty services subcontractor on PC LAN+. Zenith Data Systems subcontracts out its maintenance and support to such companies as Astronautics and Wang/I-NET. Hughes also works with Wang/I-NET which maintains offices in Japan South Korea and Guam among other Pacific Rim locales.
On-site support personnel face special issues working in the Pacific Rim. The time difference between a company's field support operations and its U.S.-based headquarters is one complicating factor.
Gerald Greer department director for advanced information handling systems at Sterling in Omaha Neb. returned to the states last year after 11 years in South Korea. "The difficult thing there is the day never ends it really turns into around-the-clock support " he said. Greer said he remembers being awakened frequently by phone calls from the states at 2 or 3 a.m.
The time difference between the U.S. and South Korea - 13 hours from Eastern Standard Time - makes it difficult enough to communicate with stateside personnel. But that difference is exacerbated because of the "very high state of alert " Greer said. "There is always a great sense of urgency we have to have everything right now."
The time difference makes it all the more important for a major vendor to have offices located in remote sites particularly for businesses where customers need assistance that cannot be provided through fax or e-mail. For instance IBM Corp. has billing and accounting operations based in Honolulu rather than forcing customers to go through IBM's federal offices in Bethesda Md.
Mel Sumidai an IBM client representative based in Honolulu describes the temporal challenge as a time warp. "I am up at 5 a.m. and it is 11 o'clock [U.S. Eastern time] and it's way early in the Far East " Sumidai said.
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Pacific Support: The HR Challenge
In many cases the challenges for vendors supporting Defense Department customers in the Western Pacific are related to human not technical resources.
IBM Corp. has been supporting its DOD customers in the Pacific under a maintenance contract that was originally awarded during the Vietnam War. When the program first began IBM had personnel living at the bases with customers. But in the ensuing years of peace that requirement has been lifted and the company has been able to rely on regional subsidiaries in Japan and South Korea to supply much-needed personnel said Hector Hernandez an IBM business unit executive responsible for federal accounts in Honolulu and in the Pacific Rim.
John Leahy group manager of government affairs and communications at Sun Microsystems Inc.'s federal office said Sun also makes as much use as possible of local nationals to support its programs. Additionally Sun is establishing "resource centers" to pursue government business worldwide staffing up with proposal writers program managers and engineers who are interested in going abroad for at least a couple of years.However in working with customers on classified programs the company's human resources are much more constrained Leahy said. "The problem with the classified programs is you have to have appropriately cleared people that have the technical talents that are specific to those installations " he said. "That narrows the pool of candidates significantly."
Despite these problems it often turns out that defense contractors along with civilian government employees provide critical stability to DOD sites in South Korea and other remote places. While some people go abroad for only three or four years at a time many companies have personnel who have been working in the community for much longer. Mel Sumidai an IBM client representative in Honolulu has been covering the Pacific territory for more than 15 years.
Joseph Ciliberto the Seoul-area manager for Sterling Software Inc. has been in South Korea for 14 years. He said continuity becomes a problem in a place like South Korea where DOD personnel come through on one-year tours. Training travel and other demands cut away as much as three to six months of that time which makes it difficult for DOD to cultivate in-house expertise.
"The contractors and [government service] workers provide a lot of the continuity over there " Ciliberto said. Sterling employees who have stayed put are now seeing DOD commanders coming through South Korea for the third time he said.