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IT On Board

IT goes wrong, we’re all used to that and the chances are that if your PC goes wrong you either call the IT helpdesk, or phone a friend, and they pop round and get it sorted, otherwise you go out to the PC shop. But what if you’re floating in the middle of an ocean on the other side of the world? Damp and salty air is not good for computers, nor is the vibration from big engines - providing and supporting shipboard IT is a bit beyond most IT suppliers but the Isle of Man, as befits its maritime heritage, is a significant player in onboard IT.


As you drive along Church Street in Post Erin you’re unlikely to notice the discreet brass plaque, but above the shops OceanWeb is a global leader in the provision of onboard IT for superyachts. This is the premier league for onboard IT, not only must it work reliably but the mega-rich owners of the world’s largest pleasure boats expect all the bells and whistles - connectivity for telephone, email, web, streaming video etc. wherever they are, even in the middle of an ocean. Dr Ben Hextall founded OceanWeb in 1997 and the company now supports the IT on around 85 superyachts, both motor and sail, ranging in size from 30 metres to 115 metres including some of the most famous and iconic vessels afloat. About 30% of these are registered on the island or managed from here.

OceanWeb designs the onboard networks, and supplies and installs the networking equipment, satellite communications, 3G/4G, airtime, onboard WiFi and IT to keep the yachts, and their passengers and crew, connected to the outside world whether in blue water, cruising a coastline, or berthed in a marina. The team are frequently involved in the fitting out of yachts as they are being built, and they clock up many air miles to exotic destinations - but as Ben, who is Vice Chair of the IoM Superyacht Forum, observes, one shipyard is much like another and none are remotely glamourous.

The firm employs technical, yacht administration and accounts staff, and has grown steadily over the years largely by word of mouth between superyacht captains, but more recently also through local CSPs and Ben is keen to expand this channel. Excelling in remote support is a priority, and whilst common enough in a corporate environment this takes on new dimensions when taking into account satellite communications latency and limited network speeds. As you would expect OceanWeb provide backup and antivirus services, and network management, but the latter comes with a twist. Satellite communications are very expensive and relatively slow so OceanWeb’s CISCO certified engineers design and configure most onboard networks with multiple auto-switching connections so that they select between satellite, 3G/4G and marina WiFi depending on what’s in range.

Slow networks are a challenge, modern software is built to cope with network responses in milliseconds and some common email, video-conferencing and file-sharing systems don’t work well over satellite links. OceanWeb engineered their own email systems to cope with these issues many years ago, and currently provide their email service to around 60 vessels with up to 50 crew each. They also provide vessel tracking for c. 70 vessels so the owners can check on them wherever they are in the world using Inmarsat communications, and have built and maintain websites for about 30 yachts.

The company is clearly very experienced in providing onboard IT and excellent service for some of the most demanding customers in the world, but it’s probable that the feature which distinguishes them most is in being a one-stop shop meaning that the customer has a single point of contact. They provide and manage the satellite and 3G/4G airtime contracts, supply, install and manage the networking and IT systems on board, and operate email, web and tracking all under one roof, wherever your ship may sail. One of the most notable features of OceanWeb’s offices is the many spectacular pictures of superyachts on the walls, but these are not executive flights of fancy, Ben and his team have been on them all.

Moving on from Port Erin down to Ramsey, where a quite different nautical IT firm is thriving; Dave Hussey brought his company Navsystems to the island about six years ago. Navsystems develops some of the most specialised marine software in existence, the mapping and tracking used to survey the sea bed and lay undersea cables.

The company’s primary product, Blue Spider, is a complex and sophisticated package running across several powerful servers. It performs myriad function including acquiring information from the ship, its equipment, and tethered & remotely operated submersibles. It provides 2D navigational and spatial mapping and tracking, and 3D modelling and visualisation of the underwater terrain. Written in C++ using QT for the user interface and OGRE for 3D visualisation (I did mention that this is specialised stuff), handling terabytes of undersea mapping and terrain modelling data, this is large scale scientific computing which you might expect to see in a university laboratory, but instead it is running on board in the harsh environment of cable-laying and marine survey vessels.

Despite being a small company Navsystems competes worldwide with big names in the marine technology sector by virtue of having a better and more flexible product. They have customers operating fleets out of the UK, China, Australia and Denmark serving some of the best known operators in the global telecoms and energy industries. Blue Spider has primarily been used for sub-sea telecommunications and power cable laying and maintenance, and for route clearance, but a recent client has come on board to use the system for offshore rig and anchor positioning. The system has also been used in survey operations searching for crashed aircraft.

As with Ocean Web, support and maintenance of the technology is always a challenge, maintaining very large computing systems from thousands of miles away over slow and intermittent satellite links is not easy, but the systems are mission-critical - the vessels carrying Blue Spider simply can’t operate if the system is not up and running.

Dave currently employs colleagues in the UK and Australia working with him on the development and support of the system, has recently recruited his first IoM employee and is looking to hire more - when he can move into the more spacious accommodation he’s identified as the next home for the company.  A new product will probably help with Navsystems expansion plans, they have recently launched the Blue Spider Logger, a cut-down version of the survey system which performs the data acquisition on-board ship but transmits it back to HQ or a mother-ship for analysis. This cheaper and simpler offering will enable Blue Spider to cast the Navsystems web over a wider range of vessels and applications, and gets its public outing when Navsystems exhibit at their first trade show in Southampton next year.

IT gets everywhere these days, and as you can see from these examples the Manx ICT sector has expanded well beyond the shores of Mannin.

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