At the Naval Academy, a Dell PC's the BMOC

At the Naval Academy, a Dell PC's the BMOC

By Bill Murray

GCN Staff

Plebe envy joins the list of challenges that upper-class midshipmen at the Naval Academy face this year, right after beating Army on the football field.

The class of 2003 just became the first academy class to receive DVD-ROM and 100M Iomega Zip drives bundled with their PCs.

Yes, these are the same plebes who are not allowed to play computer games, listen to music unless
assigned or watch television. They stand out on the Annapolis, Md., campus. They are the students at the main residence hall who are constantly saluting upper-class midshipmen, the ones who jog everywhere they go and turn corners at 90-degree angles.

The campus information services director would not say what the plebes will use the DVD-ROMs for.

'That's between them and the commandant,' Lou Giannotti said. 'I'm here to provide the best technology I can for the four years the midshipmen are here in preparation for becoming naval officers. What else they do with their computers, I don't know.'

This year, technology could give the plebes a superiority complex over the other midshipmen.

On Aug. 20, more than 1,100 plebes received Dell OptiPlex GXI desktop PCs running Microsoft Windows 98 Second Edition and Corel WordPerfect 2000. The machines have 450-MHz Pentium III processors, 128M of RAM, 10G hard drives, Accelerated Graphics Port video and 17-inch monitors. The class of 2000 received 166-MHz Pentiums, that seem old after three years.

Giannotti declared a success the five-hour afternoon operation of distributing the PCs, troubleshooting, overseeing the students' connections to the campuswide intranet and tabulating statistics on the event.

John Eisenbraun, a second-year midshipman who helped oversee the 16th Company's 41 plebes during computer issue day, called the new PCs much better than the 233-MHz Pentium II PCs from Advanced Computer Technology Inc. of Fort Collins, Colo., that his class uses.

'They've never had an issue [day] this smooth,' said Buzz Davis, a Naval Academy computer technician. On campus for only about a year, Davis said he has heard the horror stories of previous computer issue days.

Almost as soon as the words left Davis' mouth, three plebes came into the office within minutes of each other. One was missing a keyboard space bar, while another walked in with his Dell box and announced, 'Sir, it won't power up, sir.'

Explain the problem

Davis instructed each plebe to log in to the office's Action Request System help desk management system from Remedy Corp. of Mountain View, Calif., and explain the problem.

Each year's distribution has a slightly different repair theme, Davis said. While the class of 1999's Zenith Data Systems 100-MHz 486DX PCs were pretty reliable, the CPU fans for the class of 2000's PCs, from a no-name vendor, would 'burn up so quickly it was pathetic,' he said.

The class of 2001's ACT Pentium II PCs were plagued by mismatched memory and power supplies that would burn up. The class of 2002 suffered from a bad batch of Seagate Technology Inc. hard drives in its ACT Pentium II units, he said.

'I'm hoping these Dell systems won't give us a problem,' Davis said. 'From what I see on the outside, they use high-quality components.'

Nine Dell technicians roamed the halls and helped Davis field service calls, and Dell is providing the Naval Academy with four-year service warranties, said Tom Buchsbaum, vice president and general manager of Dell federal.

To track the process of issuing the PCs, the academy used an application developed in-house that has a Netscape Navigator front end and an Oracle7 database. The app let Jim Schwab, the associate director for information technology client services, view a tally for each of the 30 plebe companies on a LittlePro 620 LCD projector from InFocus Systems Inc. of Wilsonville, Ore.

When picking up a system unit, monitor and accessories box, each plebe signed a sales receipt, and a midshipman assigned to each student was supposed to log on to the Oracle program to give a company report regularly throughout the afternoon. Each report had to include a student's identification number, first and last name, and whether a computer had been issued to the student, as well as the plebe's status in logging on to the campuswide network.

The campus has a switched 10-Mbps Ethernet LAN, with an asynchronous transfer mode connection to the backbone network, Schwab said.

Students have TCP/IP clients on the network, as well as Pine e-mail from White Pine Software Inc. of Nashua, N.H., with a Navigator front end, he said.

Facing some connectivity problems in his room, Eisenbraun had not been able to give any updates for the 16th Company. 'If they don't report soon,' Schwab said, 'I have people here who will call the company' to get updates over the telephone.

Fast log on

In her cozy room, plebe Jordan Samar logged on to the campus network before her two roommates at 2:05 p.m., after receiving her computer at 1:15 p.m. 'It's easy. They just have a lot of steps,' she said, referring to the introductory manual put together by the campus information technology department.

Three days after computer issue day, Giannotti reported that only 10 plebes had reported problems. 'Most of the issues were self-explanatory,' he said. 'Certainly there were fewer problems this year than last.'

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