Defense Dept. rolls out Microsoft Teams to millions of remote workers


The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) is deploying a temporary remote work environment based on Microsoft Teams to connect millions of workers around the world amidst the COVID-19 crisis.

The DoD has seen a surge of use on its network as staffers are forced to work remotely due to the pandemic. The increased demand led to the creation of a temporary DoD-only deployment of Teams and other Office 365 tools, dubbed the Commercial Virtual Remote (CVR) environment; it’s part of a wider effort to ramp up telework capabilities across various U.S. government agencies and military forces.

As part of this initiative, DoD employees will be able to access the CVR Teams environment via Microsoft Office 365 in the Government Commercial Cloud for chat, video and document collaboration. Unlike existing deployments of Teams in the DoD, the CVR Teams environment will be available on personal and mobile devices and on commercial networks, though the department has restricted what information can be shared.

“This is an unusual move by the DoD, where all software is subject to strict security standards,” said Larry Cannell, a research director at Gartner. 

Typically, the introduction of new features to the DoD’s version of Office 365 would be delayed months or disabled entirely because of these concerns, he said. “To mitigate the use of personal devices, all CVR content is cloud-based.”

DoD Teams CVR U.S. Defense Dept.

Rapid deployment in less than a month

Although the DoD had remote work capabilities in place already, as with many large organizations, it has faced an unprecedented surge in demand for remote access to applications in recent weeks.

Companies around the world have had to scramble in recent weeks as the pandemic worsened. In a bid to keep employees safe, while still being able to work, many enterprises have turned to a variety of collaboration tools to keep everyone connected from home.

The roll out of the CVR environment began on March 27, with staff onboarding beginning earlier this month. The deployment has been rapidly scaled up, with 900,000 user accounts activated as of this past Monday, including 78,000 active users on the same day.

During one day last week, more than 250,000 accounts were added in a single day, DoD CIO Dana Deasy said in a briefing on Monday. “This is the largest rollout ever implemented in this short amount of time,” said Deasy.

The effort is designed to provide access for up to 4 million staff in total, including military and civilian workers. It is unlikely that the actual use will come close to such a figure, however.

“Four million appears to be a projected number and certainly will not reflect DAUs [daily active users]. Nevertheless, this is a massive environment,” said Cannell. “Many IT organizations are challenged to manage software deployments in the tens of thousands, at most. Four million is almost unimaginable to IT professionals.”

CVR Teams rollout details

The CVR Teams will be distinct from other implementations of Office 365 within the DoD. According to a document on the U.S. Air Force website, the Teams deployment will provide access to a wider range of capabilities than the Air Force Cloud Hosted Enterprise Services  (CHES) Teams environment.

Teams CVR chart U.S. Air Force

Although both offer access to similar features, such as integrations with Microsoft Office producing (Word, Excel, Powerpoint), there are a number of differences between the two environments.

The CVR Teams environment can be used, for example, without requiring a VPN login, and accessed using mobile devices and personal computers. 

CVR Teams is used for information classed between IL2-4 (which means it is data that is cleared for public release), whereas CHES is for data classified at IL5 (the highest level being IL6). 

CVR Teams also offers group chat (rather than just 1-to-1 chat), OneNote and Stream access, and email notifications.

The CVR Teams deployment is only expected to be available for six months, after which data created within it will be permanently deleted; the CHES Teams is permanent.

In addition, CVR Teams users will not be able to access other instances of Teams across the DoD network. This could create some challenges for workers that want to access both.

“Users working in both CVR and DoD Office teams will have some difficulties working simultaneously in both because the Teams desktop client can only be logged in to one tenant at a time,” said Cannell. “Working with multiple tenants is a challenge that even the most technically savvy users find difficult to deal with.”

One common workaround is to login to one of the tenants using the Teams client and the other using a web browser, he said, either in incognito mode or using a browser profile.

“In effect, CVR appears to be configured to treat every user’s device as an unmanaged device,” he said. “One drawback from this is that although CVR is a good introduction to Teams, its limits on the use of the full Office 365 desktop apps (Word, Excel, PowerPoint) to edit and co-edit documents is less than ideal. The web versions are far less robust than their desktop versions.”

Deployment challenges

Though the use of Teams could raise security concerns, the DoD has measures to protect data, said Cannell.

“The limitations they’ve place on file sharing (web-only) and the constraints around DoD Office 365 tenants will go a long way to mitigate these concerns,” he said. “However, as with all information systems, users will be critical to maintaining security.”

The DoD has also offered up advice to users on how to protect data and what information is suitable to share.

While the scale of the rollout may differ from what most IT teams will experience, the biggest challenge with the CVR Teams move – as with any large organization rapidly deploying Teams – is not technical. “Rather, it is getting workers to use team channels,” said Cannell.

It is crucial to ensure that DoD staffers are prepared to adapt to a new way of working that relies on channels for communication rather than email.

“Deploying the Teams client is only the beginning,” said Cannell. “Channels are a huge change to how people work. Slack has been promoting this change for years by saying we are shifting from a focus on the inbox to a focus on channels.

“If DoD workgroups continue using Teams like they do email or instant messaging, then they will see limited benefit or may give up altogether.”

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