Fort McCoy News April 28, 2017

NEC: Keeping installation's workforce online 24/7

STORY & PHOTOS BY AIMEE MALONE
Public Affairs Staff

It's easy to take something for granted when it's working. The average computer user may not think much about the work involved in keeping a system running or the people doing that work until it fails.

But at the Fort McCoy Network Enterprise Center, or NEC, the employees spend their days keeping those systems running. They do their best to head off computer and network problems before they affect users and find solutions as quickly as possible when interruptions do occur.

Alexis McVicker and Nancy Tralmer, both informational technology specialists with NEC, work in desktop support. They spend their time helping military personnel, civilian employees, and contractors get back to work when they encounter problems with computer applications, printers, or other devices.

Will Westlund (above) and Nancy Tralmer (below), both information technology specialists with the Network Enterprise Center at Fort McCoy work on network systems projects at the center April 20.
Nancy Tralmer, an information technology specialist with the Network
Enterprise Center at Fort McCoy, works on her computer April 20 at the
center.

"We are on the phone probably 90 percent of the day," Tralmer said. She said the desktop-support team, which has fewer than 10 people, is responsible for more than 1,500 pieces of equipment.

"We never have enough people to do the job," McVicker said. "I don't know if there's any department in the Army that can say they have enough bodies to do the job, but that is a challenge.

"My focus is normally on printers and scanning devices, but I think our main thing is applications not working," she said. "It usually happens after a security patch push. That takes up a lot of time."

Bandwidth issues generate a lot of tickets and phone calls, Tralmer and McVicker said. Fort McCoy is scheduled to upgrade its bandwidth, but the process has been delayed several times on the internet service provider's end.

"A lot of the Army has gone to web-based applications, so if our web is crowded, it causes a lot of issues for us," McVicker said. "We also have to tweak our browsers so they can work with those applications."

One of the challenges everyone at NEC faces is the push toward regionalization.

"We used to be able to work one-on-one and find something that worked for us and you, and now it goes through an approval process," McVicker said. Even if a technician knows exactly how to fix a user's problem, if it's not a preapproved solution, it has to be reviewed by a regional NEC first.

Security is the No. 1 issue for Army computers. Security precautions influence a number of factors, including what programs technicians are allowed to install and which updates are applied.

"Security takes up the biggest amount of my time, just trying to make sure that everything is as secure as we can make it," said Nerzhin Santiago, an information services technician with NEC. Santiago works with servers, which are basically more powerful computers that serve one particular function (such as running programs, providing email, or storing group files) as opposed to serving multiple purposes like the average desktop.

Will Westlund (above) and Nancy Tralmer (below), both information technology specialists with the Network Enterprise Center at Fort McCoy work on network systems projects at the center April 20.
Will Westlund, an information technology specialist with the Network
Enterprise Center at Fort McCoy, works on a network systems project
April 20 at the center.

"Technology is a daily changing (environment). … Staying on top of that is interesting," Santiago said. "Sometimes we have to delay the upgrades that we can do, depending on the budgeting and (security)." NEC does its best to make sure the Army keeps up with the curve, he said.

While all patches and security updates are tested and approved by higher headquarters, some problems won't show up if a program isn't frequently used on a test machine. Bugs may not become apparent until employees log on to their computers and start up programs.

"When it comes to security, there's a very fine line between it being usable to people and it being really secure," Santiago said.

"On the civilian side, they try to find the line that is in the middle. On the Army side, they try to go as secure as possible, which often means that it makes things more difficult for the average user."

Santiago said his job is to make sure the local servers are available and secure and to troubleshoot any problems as quickly as possible.

"It's a lot of research. I end up doing a lot of Google searching or on the Microsoft site. I look at the error messages and try to narrow down what portion it is that's broken," Santiago said.

Sometimes it's not actually a server problem but a network issue.

"For example, the web servers, those are actually in a … demilitarized zone. It's a separate portion of the network that's accessible both out to the internet and to the internal network," Santiago said. "Everything else is internal; it's behind several layers of security so that it's not as easy to get into. If we put our web servers in there, it makes it that much harder for the public to get to it. We want the public to get to it."

Networks are handled by another team at NEC, including information technology specialist Sandy Ohler. A number of issues can affect network connections, Ohler said.

"It could be mice eating the fiber link to a building. It could be that switch took an electrical surge or hit," she said. Air conditioning failures can take out servers and switches. Security updates and configurations can change or become corrupted. NEC is as proactive as it can be, Ohler said, but outages and failures still occur.

"Things will fail, but that's what we're here for," she said. "We try to get everyone back online again so they can get their jobs done."

Sometimes they can simply reboot a switch. "Sometimes that switch is fried, and we have to configure a new switch and swap it out," Ohler said.

If a user's network goes down, the problem could be in a wall port, a distribution hub, or anywhere in between.

When they're not troubleshooting network problems, Ohler said the network team works on projects to upgrade Fort McCoy's internal networks and keep security up to date. They're currently working on replacing end-of-life switches throughout post.

"We try to keep the network humming along," Ohler said.

Information technology is a good career for people who like research and puzzles, Ohler and Santiago said.

"If you like to solve problems, this is an excellent field to be in," Ohler said. "You have to be a good detective."

"One of the things I love about technology is figuring things out," Santiago said. "Especially when I'm tasked with setting up something brand new. … I've got to do my research, figure it out, (and) find all the nuances."

Tralmer and McVicker said the best part of their job is finding solutions that help the customer.

"We hope we can continue to work as a team to meet everyone's goals," McVicker said. She said they know it can be frustrating for customers when there isn't an immediate, easy solution to a computer problem.

"We appreciate their patience," Tralmer said.

"We have a number of tickets on a daily basis," McVicker said. "Those we can actually help, and we know we're able to help the customer reach their goals and do their jobs, that's the rewarding part."

For help with computer problems, Fort McCoy customers should first call the Army Enterprise Service Desk at 866-335-2769. For more information about the Fort McCoy NEC, call 608-388-4884.