Running an NT-based network on the USS Carl Vinson

The USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) is a 95,000-ton, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in the US Navy. As part of the Navy's Pacific Fleet with home port at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington, the ship is home to 6000 personnel, carries 80 aircraft, and has one of the world's largest floating LANs.

"Keeping this baby going is quite a job," laughs LAN manager William T. Bowley, a data processing technician first class aboard the Vinson. The "baby" is the Gold Eagle LAN, a Windows NT network supporting about 600 Windows for Workgroups, Windows 95, and NT Workstation clients. All users can access some version of Microsoft Office. All shipboard personnel who need to keep in touch with the ship's chain of command have systems connected into the LAN. Division officers use their systems to receive orders from their department heads and communicate those orders to subordinates. The Navy also gathers important information affecting the administration of the ship and uses the LAN to distribute this information.

The Vinson is using NT as part of the Navy's Information Technology for the 21st Century (IT-21) initiative. Admiral Archie Clemens, commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, first presented the IT-21 concept during a speech in January 1997. The Navy designed IT-21 to consolidate and expand existing IS programs while the Navy faces the problems of increasing workloads and decreasing budgets. The initiative consists of a set of principles and standards that the Navy will use in all future IS projects (for information about these principles and standards, see the sidebar, "Information Technology for the 21st Century," page 200). One important standard is NT, which, with Microsoft Exchange, will be the backbone of a new Defense Department-wide Defense Messaging System. This system will eventually carry all classified and nonclassified messages throughout the Department of Defense.

"We were among the first to adopt NT," says Bowley. Before NT, the Vinson ran a Novell network supporting about 150 users. After exploring options with the Novell network, the ship's maintenance and material management coordinator, Lt. Commander John Joyner, concluded that the Novell network fell far short of what was needed. He persuaded the ship's chain of command to adopt NT in February 1996. This decision had vision: The Pacific Fleet reached the same conclusion the following year.

Migrating to NT
The NT implementation took about four months (for Technician Bowley's views on implementing the Gold Eagle LAN, see the sidebar, "An Interview with William T. Bowley," page 201). Growing the ship's network was not easy. " The cabling in place was not really designed for any kind of modern network," says Bowley. The ship has a thickwire Ethernet backbone designed to support several large multiuser computer systems, not a large number of networked personal computers. Without amenities such as drop ceilings on the aircraft carrier, running new cables would not be easy. Eventually, the IS team redesigned the network topology. The Navy placed intelligent transceivers to create several subnetworks and better route the network traffic.

"We have six main servers running a mixture of NT Server 3.51 and Server 4.0," Bowley said. "We have two Compaq servers, a ProLiant 1500 and a ProLiant 5000; the rest of the machines we put together ourselves. Most of these are at least 100MHz machines."

Making Messaging a Top Priority
Because letter mail can be a significant problem for ships on deployment, the team tried to improve on ship-to-shore messaging. Waiting two weeks for mail to travel from the US to a ship in the Persian Gulf is not uncommon. Exchange is one of the central applications on the Gold Eagle LAN and a key standard in IT-21. "All our clients use Exchange as their email, and all our clients have Internet email, which is quite unusual on a Navy ship," Bowley said. Not everyone on the ship has access to Internet email. "Accessing email over the Internet requires a certain level of seniority, but the Gold Eagle LAN provided more Internet capability to more users than on any other ship in the Navy."

Every day, the Exchange server handles between 3000 and 7000 messages. In 24 hours, the crew typically transmits about 1000 messages off ship and receives an equal number from land. To support all the messaging traffic, the Navy replaced the Vinson's existing Exchange server, a homegrown 100MHz Pentium server that had 64MB of RAM and 4GB of storage, with a new Compaq 200MHz Pentium Pro server with 396MB of RAM and an 18GB RAID array.

"We're really proud of the new Exchange server because migrating from Microsoft Mail to Microsoft Exchange during the middle of a Western Pacific/Persian Gulf deployment was quite interesting," laughs Bowley. "When we were on deployment in the Persian Gulf, we were one of the few ships in the Navy that maintained an Internet mail link with the US. To say that this benefit was an incalculable morale boost would probably be an understatement," said Bowley. The ship sent and received more than 5000 Internet messages a day while in the Persian Gulf. In all, the Vinson processed nearly 1.2 million email messages during deployment in the Gulf.

The upgrade plan called for migrating one department from MS Mail to Exchange every week. The IS team delivered a set of upgrade instructions to all users. Of course, not every user followed all the instructions as carefully as Bowley would have liked. The team was able to handle some problems over the phone and use tools such as Systems Management Server (SMS). However, many problems required visiting various sites around the ship. The ship's vast size and intense level of activity while deployed made for some long days. "If you're a network administrator, you know what I mean. I think a lot of my gray hair is the result of that migration," says Bowley.

While at sea, the Vinson's network communicates with the US via the CA 3 Challenge Athena satellite system. The ship routes communications through Hawaii to Florida, and then to the rest of the country. The system performs well, and routinely permits email to travel from the ship to its destination in two to four hours.

At times during deployment in the Persian Gulf, the ship experienced transmission rates of four minutes. "Sometimes, it was almost chat-like," said Bowley. "We had a very generous bandwidth allocation because the ship's chain of command realized the importance of giving the crew the ability to communicate with their families."

In addition to email access, Web access is important. The Navy wanted to expand the network and provide more services, such as Web access. "I'd say about 200 of our clients run Microsoft Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator. About 50 of those clients have complete Web access; the rest are restricted through Microsoft Proxy Server," said Bowley. Users on the ship regularly access Web sites such as USA Today, CNN, Navy Online, and The Bureau of Naval Personnel. The Navy Personnel site is particularly important because it contains the latest instructions, policies, and advancement exam results. "The news sites were extremely popular while we were deployed to the Arabian Gulf as part of Operation Desert Strike," reports Bowley. "The Web access permitted the crew to keep in touch with current events as they were happening, and this capability contributed very positively to morale."

Looking Ahead to the 21st Century
What's next for the Gold Eagle LAN? The Vinson's IS team is busy preparing to migrate many clients to NT Workstation 4.0 with Office 97. They're also deploying a corporate-style intranet aboard ship. Each department will have a set of Web pages for instructions and information. The IS team will use Adobe Acrobat and other Web publishing tools to create links to other pages on and off ship. "One department has already created an Adobe-based chain of command, important instructions, and standard operating procedures, all in hyperlinked text with imbedded photographs," said Bowley.

The USS Carl Vinson is a strong case for the IT-21 concept because the ship is deploying standard technology quickly and to great effect. NT has helped in many areas. "For us, it was a quantum leap," says Bowley, "I don't know how we did our jobs before."