Cutting IT Costs by Going Commercial

Stephen Withers looks at the growing trend in the world's Navies of using commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) equipment.


A warship is not the easiest environment for computer equipment, yet defence forces are increasingly looking towards commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) systems rather than expensive custom-built solutions, and naval forces, despite their unique needs, are no exception to that trend.

The Royal Australian Navy (RAN), for example, uses COTS PCs widely aboard ships 'for operational, administrative and welfare purposes', according to a defence spokesperson.

"Standard PCs and monitors, servers, printers and network equipment, including switches and routers are mostly used." The equipment is sourced from a wide range of vendors (the companies' identities are regarded as 'commercially sensitive' information) but they are built and accredited to specific hardware and software configurations, and then integrated with other systems by RAN personnel and a wide range of Department of Defence contractors.

"Most ships have their own LAN from which Royal Australian Navy personnel can access their email accounts, work-related applications and programmes, group folders containing corporate data, and the internet," the spokesperson says.

A UNIQUE ENVIRONMENT

Since most workplaces on the RAN's ships are office-like environments, COTS hardware fits in very well. A mix of desktops and notebooks is used, with two or three people sharing each system.

The movement of the ship is a factor that must be considered. PCs and peripherals must be adequately secured against the severe movements that can occur during adverse weather or erratic manoeuvring.

While different ships are rated to withstand different levels of shock, equipment connected to IP networks aren't considered mission critical and consequently are not required to withstand extreme shock loadings.

For example, the RAN does not require notebooks to be equipped with active shock protection systems such as accelerometers that can park and lock the disk drive heads. Passive protection systems (eg, shock-absorbing drive mountings) predominate: "This has proved adequate for day-to-day operations for a number of years," said the spokesperson. "A far greater risk to materiel integrity is operator error or negligence."

Similarly, solid-state drives are not widely used due to their higher cost, but their mechanical durability and other characteristics can be useful in certain (unspecified) situations. "All drive types are considered during procurement," the spokesperson said, adding that "they [solid-state drives] may be more widely used in the future as their real price continues to fall and their capacity and performance improve."

Some specialist units use ruggedised equipment, but such measures are not normally required for general shipboard use. One exception is that monitors are toughened to minimise the risk of shattering if battle damage occurs. LCDs are preferred due to space and weight limitations (and they give 'excellent service' according to the spokesperson). Custom-made equipment is currently not required as commercially toughened units meet the required specifications.

COTS EQUIPMENT MODIFICATIONS

Some minor changes are made to the COTS hardware, notably the disabling of Bluetooth and other wireless features to avoid interference with other shipboard gear. All the PC and related gear is 'sociability tested' to ensure compatibility with other equipment.

"The movement of the ship is a factor that must be considered – PCs and peripherals must be adequately secured."

Servers and other rack-mounted equipment are installed in such a way to withstand more extreme shocks, and, if damage does occur, to contain it within individual pieces of equipment. After all, you'd have enough to worry about in such a situation without having a server leave a rack in the direction of your kneecap.

As with any installation, power and cooling are important considerations. "Occasionally operations or exercises can sometimes result in a loss of power," said the spokesperson. Consequently, "servers are provided with a UPS which allows enough power to conduct an automatic [and] controlled shut down to prevent data loss or corruption."

Cooling is achieved much as it would be in any commercial server room: with air conditioning and careful placement of equipment. About the only difference is that the air conditioners are dedicated to the equipment they cool rather than being intended to reduce the temperature of the entire space.

The RAN's experience with COTS PC equipment is that it is generally reliable, despite the relatively harsh seagoing environment with round the clock usage, constant movement, and the damp, salt-laden atmosphere. There's a general policy of carrying limited spare equipment – the preference is to quickly repair or replace any faulty gear.