Navy Hopes Windows Is the Smart Choice

Dial aheadto the year 2008. Picture a US Navy luminary smashing a champagne bottle acrossthe hull of the CVN 77, a new nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. It functionsmore efficiently and requires fewer crew members than previous carriers, thanksin large part to the Windows-based operating system that powers communicationsand integrated warfare systems among other ship electronics.

MicrosoftCorp. (www.microsoft.com) was chosen to perform these duties by theCVN 77's system designer, Lockheed Martin Corp. (www.lockheedmartin.com) because of the flexibility and scalabilityof the PC structure, and probably more importantly because of the enormous costsavings over the mainframe-based hybrid systems present in most of today'scarriers. Rich Lockwood, director of advanced naval and C4I programs atLockheed Martin's Naval Electronics & Surveillance Systems-Surface Systems,says the choice was obvious.

RecentMicrosoft history with the Navy's vessels, however, may indicate otherwise, butLockwood has complete confidence in the choice.

"Webelieve Microsoft has a better insight on where the industry is going, and wewanted someone like that on our team," Lockwood says. "Lifecyclecrewing and acquisition and maintenance costs were key determinators with theCVN 77 program. We looked at what Microsoft was able to do, as opposed to goingwith several stove-type mainframe systems."

Ascomputers have evolved during the last half of the 20th Century, thecosts of customized military systems have grown astronomically. The need toinvestigate alternatives in the commercial systems market became clear.Lockwood says Microsoft stepped up to the plate as the best option.

Costs forthe CVN 77's systems are difficult to predict at this point. But Lockwood says,"We'll be able to save millions in maintenance costs alone."

Lockwoodsays Navy personnel assigned to the 90,000-ton carrier can expect to be trainedon "Son of Windows 2000" -- the iteration that will be available nearthe end of the seven-year construction period. Lockheed was selected by NewportNews Shipbuilding (www.nns.com) to develop the aircraft and weaponslaunchers as well as other operational systems for the carrier. Theshipbuilding portion of the contract calls for $500 million.

On thesurface, the plan sounds like a winner. Today's average carrier contains morethan 100 different computer displays -- myriad workstations and stand-alonesbacked by a mainframe system. Going to Windows will enable one uniformoperating system, fewer displays, and fewer people needed to operate them. Whatcould be the downside?

Maybehistory can tell us.

In themid-1990s, the Navy launched a cost-cutting initiative called "SmartShip," where ships operated at highly computerized levels with asignificant crew reduction. Windows NT was among the commercial products chosento operate the ship systems.

InSeptember 1997, the USS Yorktown, a guided-missile cruiser that was the firstship with the Smart Ship technology, experienced a widespread system failureand was reported dead in the water for two hours. According to publishedreports, the problem occurred when a crew member accidentally entered a zerointo the data field of an application, causing the computer to divide aquantity by zero. That resulted in a buffer overflow error, which brought downthe propulsion system.

Otherreports suggest the Yorktown had to be towed to port and was disabled for morethan a day, rather than the two hours publicly stated. It has been suggestedthat such incidents have not been unique in the program and may have occurredas recently as earlier this year.

In June1998, Anthony DiGiorgio, a civilian engineer with the Atlantic Fleet TechnicalSupport Center for more than 25 years, wrote an article for Proceedings, a US Naval Institutemagazine. In the piece, he blamed the Navy for being ill-prepared technicallyfor the Smart Ships initiative, but also criticized NT as a product "knownto have some failure modes."

Manyhigh-end NT users throughout the enterprise have lamented its reliability andscalability in other mission-critical situations. Dan Kusnetzky, program vicepresident, system software, at IDC (www.idc.com), says that only scheduled downtime isacceptable for enterprise-class applications that must run 24x7. He doesn'tbelieve Windows NT 4.0 is “really ready to take up that type of load.”

DiGiorgiodeclined to be interviewed for this article. The Navy Office of Information wasalso contacted, but didn't respond in time for publication.

Lockwoodsays he isn't familiar with the problems of the Smart Ship program. But he saysif the Internet reports have any truth, they could be the kinds of problems onewould run into when testing such a system in simulation, perhaps when pushingsystems intentionally to the brink to see how they react.

RetiredRear Adm. Robert Williamson, who commanded the aircraft carrier USS Nimitzduring Desert Storm, is now the executive director of business strategy atMicrosoft. Williamson says he has personally seen NT-based units relied upon incombat zones and he has complete confidence in them during mission-criticalsituations. He believes that as Microsoft has moved toward the high-end market,reliability has to become a nonissue in order to compete.

"The2000 platform is more secure and a lot more scaleable than anything we'veproduced in the past," Williamson says. "It's important for it to beon par with Unix-based systems in terms or availability and reliability, and wethink we're there.”

As for pastsystems failures on Naval vessels, Williamson points out that the Smart Shipprogram can be viewed as a learning experience.

"TheCVN 77 program is different from Smart Ship in that Smart Ship broke the ice asthe prototype,” Williamson says. “It was more an experiment, really tappinginto an unknown environment. It was taking the better business practicesapplied in the commercial seagoing business to see if that had validity on thislevel. The concept has proved positive."