Nov 21 2023
Digital Workspace

Commercial Solutions Assist the U.S. Army in Securing Remote Classrooms

Virtual learning becomes possible with National Security Agency CSfC program.

The U.S. Army Cyber School trains the Army’s cyberwarfare workforce, often in classified spaces on a dedicated network. Between 900 and 1,000 soldiers are in-house at any given moment for training that lasts between 20 and 40 weeks.

“Our classes are like a conveyer belt,” says Todd Boudreau, deputy commandant of the Cyber School, part of the Army’s Cyber Center of Excellence. “They get there on a set date, and they’re going to graduate, and they’re going to go to the operational force on a set date.”

But when COVID-19 struck in 2020, the center’s home base of Fort Eisenhower, Ga. (formerly Fort Gordon), was required to institute a two-week quarantine on return for anyone who left the base. Instructors had to come up with a way to continue education for those in lockdown.

“We could not afford the loss of two weeks,” Boudreau says.

The remote solution developed by the base and supported with work by CDW•G enabled the cyber students to continue learning without major interruption. “We offered a virtual training platform accessible from any device, anywhere, at any time,” says Peter Dunn, CDW•G CTO, federal.

Click the banner below to watch a video on the Cyber School’s remote training program.

Temporary Network Security Solutions Had Limitations

In the pandemic’s early days, the Cyber School adjusted in the usual ways — reconfiguring classrooms so students were 6 feet apart, requiring masks, sanitizing the facilities several times a day.

Virtual learning was not an option for all students because the base did not provide junior enlisted soldiers with internet capability in the barracks where they were required to live, says Master Sgt. Frank Estrada, the Cyber School’s senior adviser for cyber education and training.

“And a lot of what we do is classified information, so it would have to be across classified systems,” Boudreau says. Officers could opt for remote, but had to be physically present on the base to access classified course material.

DIVE DEPPER: Why the National Guard relies on outside experts to train cyber workers.

Although the base began preparing for possible remote work in the late summer, the first real crunch came during the November-December holidays, when soldiers would take leave and go off base. Quarantine requirements kept returnees out of the classroom for two weeks.

While the enlisted soldiers could buy commercial Wi-Fi for use in the barracks, the connection was often overloaded, and the network was not secure enough for classwork, he adds. The base set up its own Wi-Fi and VPN for quarantined soldiers, but it was available only for the two weeks they were in isolation.

Master Sgt. Frank Estrada
We still prefer face-to-face because it increases collaboration. But we still have the option to go remote. One of the big things that’s come out of all of this is that we’re able to do things a different way.”

Master Sgt. Frank Estrada Senior Adviser for Cyber Education and Training, U.S. Cyber School

Instructors and students — some of whom had come to Fort Eisenhower directly from virtual classrooms in the civilian world — soon adjusted to the remote lessons.

“It was a rough transition because we were just so used to being in person,” says First Lt. Guibel Marino, a graduate of the Cyber School. “We figured, okay, we just need to adapt and overcome.”

But it became clear that the need for distancing and for remote learning wasn’t going to end soon, and Fort Eisenhower began looking for a more permanent technology solution.

In November 2021, the U.S. Cyber Center of Excellence (which includes the Cyber School) worked with CDW•G to acquire and deploy an enterprise virtual training platform (EVTP).

“The EVTP seamlessly accommodated the diverse needs of Fort Eisenhower’s training program,” Dunn says. “Its modular design allowed for versatility, enabling support for a wide range of training scenarios.”

LEARN MORE: How the military is using commercial technology to meet hybrid work challenges.

Army Considers Future Remote Classrooms

The platform used the National Security Agency’s Commercial Solutions for Classified program as a basis. The CSfC program allows agencies that handle sensitive information to safely buy commercially available technology already cleared for secure use by the NSA.

The EVTP platform is “not a one-size-fits-all,” Dunn says. “We tailor it to meet the specific needs of the customer.”

For Fort Eisenhower, the deployment included Dell Power Edge EMC, Unity storage arrays, Cisco and Aruba networking technologies and VMware software. Other federal agencies who have since deployed EVTP have used different technology more appropriate for their situations, he adds.

As the pandemic eased, the Cyber School continued to hold remote classes where possible. “We still prefer face-to-face because it increases collaboration. But we still have the option to go remote,” Estrada says.

“One of the big things that’s come out of all of this is that we’re able to do things a different way,” he adds. “The Army is set in its ways, but COVID kind of forced us to think differently.”



U.S. Army

Become an Insider

Unlock white papers, personalized recommendations and other premium content for an in-depth look at evolving IT