Keeping a navy's data in shipshape condition

Standardising data management systems across a chain of shops, bank group, or holiday company is one thing -- but doing the same for a whole navy is a different prospect. That's the task facing BAE Systems.

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Standardising data management for the Royal Navy's entire fleet is a significant - but not impossible - undertaking.

Image: Royal Navy

These days every company wants to standardise its data management; it's often the first task when one company takes over another. But how about standardising that across a fleet of ships?

Ships come in all shapes and sizes -- from little patrol boats to the largest aircraft carriers -- and so do their systems. When the UK's Royal Navy decided to change the way data management is handled on its ships so they worked to one standard, everybody knew it would be a mammoth undertaking.

The company chosen for the task was BAE Systems, an international tech solutions firm with a turnover of £17bn.

So how do you go about standardising all of the data management across a fleet of ships?

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BAE's Wilson: "You have that across each ship, and we've got supply chain systems, design systems, maintenance systems and so you've got data spread all over the place."

Photo: Colin Barker

Over time you might have, for example, a maintenance system that might change four or five times and, "if you think about that across each platform, and we've got supply chain systems, design systems, maintenance systems, we've got data spread all over the place," says Simon Wilson, BAE Systems Maritime Services', head of Information Services.

"So we have to fully optimise the life of the asset and its capability;" he says. "The drive is to try and find a way of doing all that."

And remember that information takes many different forms. Roger Hobley, BAE Systems Maritime Services architecture manager points out that "we still have microfiche ... through to fully digital technical information that is up to ISO standard and it is all in many different formats".

A warship has thousands of systems on board and integrating them is a challenge, he says.

So how do you go about it?

"One of the key pieces to this is the STEP standard [ISO 10303] which is the main standard for managing complex assets," says Wilson. "That's been around for 30 years [it has been under development since 1984] and is used by us, Boeing, Airbus, and others and we have all contributed to that."

That standard essentially defines every piece of data, from the time that a product is designed to the time the product goes out.

On top of that the application protocol that they use is AP239. As Hobley puts it, "People read different things about standards but they need to know which context it is being used in and, of course, there are different protocols for different uses".

The company invested in the entire ISO standard, he says, "and the backbone of what we do is to the letter of the law so that it enables us to keep that information for a lifetime".

The Navy has multiple applications that record maintenance events and that also means it has one system that calls something by one name and another system that calls it by another name. That is where the ISO standard comes in and the systems now can map all those different "languages" to the ISO standard.

Does that all work? "Absolutely," says Hobley. "Traditionally it has been very difficult and a lot of companies and agencies have not made it work."

Another key issue is performance and being able to compile different views, "both for business intelligence purposes and for apps," he says. "The speed of that translation is very important for usability. You've got to have the layers in your architecture to make it work and traditionally that has been a real problem."

How have they dealt with this? "Through our architecture," he says. Through the layers of that architecture, there is abstraction and transformation going on as people go through their business processes, and it is arranged so that the business processes transactions on the core and at the same time runs business intelligence.

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BAE's Hobley: "People have to be able to trust digital information and that's a leap."

Image: Colin Barker

"We have the complete Information Builders product set which is orchestrating and driving that process," says Hobley, which he described as "an engineering solution to data management".

Having that suite is powerful, "because it holds the knowledge about people -- the traceability -- and you can go straight through the suite", he says. It works very quickly, and it gives the users the ability to move the data around use it in any one of the Information Builders' services, he adds.

That could be the reporting engine, the full management framework, the ROA services, or any of the IB management services. It can do that "because it comes from a central core", he says.

Wilson's job of organising and standardising the systems across an entire fleet is enormous but the trick is to start small.

"As we extend the footprint, we go through processes to ensure that the information we take and all the different sources that we take it from have the assurances," he says. But the "guiding principles" is that "nothing hits the core until it's assured".

On a project as big as the Royal Navy one, Wilson's team dealt with a mountain of information that had to be converted into the correct format and then added to the network.

"We are talking about saving 12 to 24 months of real-time data off the ships," says Wilson. "That gave us another level of challenge for visualisation."

"We are managing vast amounts of data," Wilson explains. "We have a team of data scientists who are trying to analyse it and visualise it and there are multiple different concepts."

The Navy has "decades" of data and his project is bringing it all together so that it can be manipulated. "But we haven't done all that yet and so we are carrying on and wading through it."

This also means trying out new ideas in terms of presenting that data back.

"At one time we were providing data in a tabular format but if you provide it on a touch screen where the sailors can be moving the data around, then it changes the whole concept of how data is consumed", he says.

A lot of the job is about improving that experience for all the different users and, "you have to remember that a lot of the people on board a ship are young and are used to the technology and expect a modern user experience", he says.

"That is what we have created and continue to create. Making the experience mobile and user-friendly has been a challenge and continues to be."

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