by Todd Datz

How Information Technology Supports the Queen Mary

Jun 15, 200413 mins
Data Center

A guest embarking on the Queen Mary 2?the world’s newest, biggest and most expensive ocean liner?pulls out her smart card and hands it to a smiling security officer in a crisp, white uniform, who scans her through. After settling into her cabin, she flicks on the digital interactive TV and fires off a couple of e-mails. A few clicks away she browses the evening’s dinner menu, then orders a bottle of pinot noir, which will be on her table when she arrives at the restaurant. Following some after-dinner entertainment in the theater, she heads back to her cabin, pipes in some Mozart from the TV system’s vast music library, orders room service for breakfast and falls asleep.

The $800 million QM2, built by Cunard Line, a unit of Carnival, weighs in at 151,400 tons and, at 1,132 feet, is a mere 116 feet shorter than the structural height of the Empire State Building. She’s the first Cunard cruise ship built in more than three decades, since the company launched the Queen Elizabeth 2 in 1969, and the only regularly scheduled cruise liner crossing the Atlantic. (The QE2 is now cruising in European waters.) The ship boasts 10 dining venues, a planetarium, a casino, a two-story theater and five swimming pools. Hot tubs and the Canyon Ranch Spa offer relief for muscles sore from shuffleboard. Some 1,250 crew members cater to upwards of 2,600 passengers, a cozy ratio for guests (most big ships have a considerably higher passenger to crew ratio). The QM2 made her maiden voyage, from Southampton, England, to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in January. In April, the QM2 sailed from Southampton to her U.S. home port of New York City, where she was greeted with a rousing welcome.

The smart cards and interactive TVs are just a couple of examples of the vast IT capabilities built into the behemoth. The QM2 is a floating city, with integrated systems that make it arguably the most technologically advanced vessel on the ocean. But incorporating IT onto the ship was far from smooth sailing. One of the biggest challenges facing Cunard’s IT department was its relative inexperience?the company hadn’t built a ship in more than 30 years and didn’t have a separate shipbuilding IT division as some cruise lines do. In addition, the QM2 was a new class of ship, so there was no preexisting design to help guide the IT leaders as they plotted major issues like cable drops. And to add more complexity to the mix, they didn’t have access to the ship (which was constructed in France) until late in the building process, so the staff had to construct a deployment center in Miami to build and test the systems. Recently, CIO was invited on board for a day to take a closer look at the IT powering Cunard’s newest member of the royal family and find out what sorts of challenges the company’s IT staff faced in designing and installing a technology infrastructure from the bottom up.

Enhancing the Passenger Experience

Guests arriving for their trip can have their picture taken at either the port hotel (at a remote embarkation station), the terminal or the purser’s office on board if they’re running late. Their passports and credit cards are also scanned. That information is fed into the ship’s property management system. The cards then become all-in-one devices that act as room keys, allow passengers to purchase goods (without having to carry cash), and to embark and disembark without having to carry their passports. The QM2 is the first cruise liner to offer such capabilities in a smart card, says Jeff Richman, director of business solutions and applications development for Cunard.

The interactive television system is one of only three currently in use on ships (the other two are on board two vessels owned by Hapag-Lloyd, a German cruise line). The system, built by IDF, a German multimedia technology company, uses a Philips TV, with a little set-top box running Linux behind it.

Passengers see a menu divided into 11 functional areas of activities and services on the ship, such as classes, restaurants and shore excursions. Supplying e-mail access to every guest in every cabin is cutting edge on the high seas?on other ships with Internet connections, guests generally have to use Internet cafŽs. (The QM2 has one of those as well for those who prefer typing messages in the company of others or need the comfort of a staff member on hand if they run into trouble.) Each e-mail costs $1.50 to send or receive, a charge some guests say they dislike. Guests can also watch on-demand videos.

The system also lets guests shop online, whether it be for a bottle of scotch or flowers from the onboard florist. “Any sale that occurs through this is found money,” says Dick Beliveau, IT manager for shipboard systems. Passengers can book shore excursions ahead of time to avoid standing in line at the purser’s desk. The system also allows passengers to see how much they’ve spent on board.

All that functionality is the result of some serious integration. To enable guests to shop, the IDF system needed to be linked to the POS system; passengers can access their billing data because of the integration to the property management system. “Richard [Beliveau] and I spent a lot of time looking at the systems interfaces,” says Frank Finch, director of global technical services.

Given the vast age range found on cruise ships, Cunard’s IT staffers put a lot of effort into making the system easy for passengers of all ages to use, but they didn’t do it alone. “A lot of work from the marketing department went into the look and feel. This is way beyond just a straight IT project,” says Jeff Boltz, project manager, who led the rollout. To help guests in need of some hand-holding, Boltz trained the stewards and stewardesses in using the interactive TV system, as well as in troubleshooting the hardware. “The clientele are not computer-savvy. They don’t understand that the reason they can’t key in anything in lower case is because they have the caps lock on,” he says.

For Cunard, the system first and foremost improves the customer experience and helps differentiate the QM2 from other ships. Additionally, from an operational perspective, it cuts down on the amount of time crew members spend answering phones or fielding requests in the purser’s office. The system also provides more opportunities for onboard revenue?critical to cruise ships where, with space at a premium (even on the QM2), no revenue opportunity is overlooked.

Command Central

Tucked away in separate, nondescript locations of the ship are three data centers. (These data centers back each other up should any of them fail.) Inside the main business operations center sits a rack of servers, the PBX communications system and the public announcement system (one of the ship’s critical safety systems). Hosting those systems in one room represents a design change from traditional shipbuilding. “The big advantage is we could spend more money on the common infrastructure?the raised floor, better fire suppression, redundant power supply,” says Finch, giving Cunard’s IT crew more bang for its buck.

Finch also designed the room for growth?another break from past designs, in which computer rooms are often glorified closets. “That took quite a bit of changing minds,” he says. “In shipbuilding, people are very set in the ways things are done, and they’re [reluctant] to change their minds, no matter what happens. So it took quite a bit of time with Carnival shipbuilding to convince them how we can make things better.”

Designing an IT infrastructure for the world’s largest ocean liner presented all sorts of challenges for Cunard’s IT crew. “People had to continue their support responsibilities for the 70 or 80 other systems and at the same time learn during this greenfield opportunity of putting all these systems on a brand new ship,” says Richman. Finch did have some experience with shipbuilding IT from previous jobs, so he headed up the project. And he had plenty of support from the business side. “It became very clear to Carnival shipbuilding that IT was no longer a secondary part of the business,” he says.

Finch says that the biggest challenge he faced in the IT design was cabling. Other new ships are typically built in a class?princess, spirit or voyager, for example?meaning there’s a preset design, with predestined cable drops. Not so with the QM2, which is, more or less, one of a kind. Some 2,500 data junctions?located in the cabins, the 40 or so wireless access points and elsewhere?thus had to be figured into the construction of the ship. “We started planning over four years ago,” he says. “We had to specify every cable drop location right down to ’I want it right here on this desk.’ If you miss it, you are screwed.” That’s because cable drops require torching and welding to break through steel and fireproofing. Richman and Finch describe one rare occasion when they did miss: A day before the maiden voyage, the installers realized they hadn’t cabled one of the deluxe suites. To do so, carpenters had to rip out the wall, take a sample of the wood (they didn’t have that particular material on board), order the replacement from the shipyard in France and send it to Southampton for a speedy repair. “All for a piece of cable,” says Richman.

Data Management

The heart of the IT back-office infrastructure is the property management system, which handles passenger and crew information. This system manages information concerning the cashless onboard billing environment and who gets on and off the vessel. The other major IT systems interface with the property management system. On the QE2 and many other cruise ships, those systems all have their own databases, and linking and replicating them can be cumbersome. One of the major design goals on the QM2 was to streamline that replication to keep the environment as seamless as possible. In the end, the IT staff reduced the number of replicated databases to three: the PBX, TVs and POS. Making sure that the communications system remains operational if the property management system goes down is a no-brainer; having the other two remain functional means guests can keep charging?an extremely important consideration given many guests likely make a point not to carry much cash on board.

The property management system also allows the QM2 to upload passenger and crew manifests to DHS, which requires cruise ships and airlines to send that information before departure and upon arrival.

Another system that Cunard provides aboard is dubbed AVO, for avoid verbal orders. AVO enables crew members to report issues on the ship without having to pick up a phone or physically track someone down. (Guests can also report any problems they have using their TVs.) For example, if a housekeeper notices a leaky faucet, he reports the problem using a PC. That information is automatically sent to the maintenance staff, where it’s assigned to a worker. The worker can also see every other work order assigned to him, which ones must be done that day and so on. Once the faucet is fixed, the worker enters that information into the system. In addition to improving crew efficiency, AVO helps enrich the ship’s customer service as well. A hotel manager can call a guest and say, You reported this broken faucet at 8:00 a.m.; has it been fixed to your satisfaction? “It’s more proactive. It keeps guests happier,” says Tom Borgeteien, fleet systems technical coordinator.

AVO is integrated with the ship’s planned maintenance and purchasing system. That system (widely used in the industry) stores information on the ship’s inventory, such as the types of pumps the ship uses. It also contains the recommended maintenance for each piece of equipment. By integrating AVO with this system, it allows a manager to, for example, prioritize work orders for the maintenance staff. “There are no other systems that integrate the planned maintenance with an AVO-type system,” says Richman, referring to the rest of the cruise industry.

The wireless access points on the vessel truly make the QM2 a 21st century vessel. All the restaurants and many of the bars use Wi-Fi to connect guest orders?entered at workstations by waitstaff?to access points on the ceilings, which are then routed via cables to the galleys. In the largest restaurant on board, chefs view the orders on two large plasma screens. And at some of the bars, waiters use handhelds to enter drink orders, which are then transmitted wirelessly to the bartenders.

When problems do arise on any of the onboard systems, there are three computer support officers on board for each cruise. If there is a problem the computer support officers can’t handle, the IT staff based at Cunard’s headquarters can connect to the systems via satellite and handle it remotely. That’s a big change from the days when it was sometimes necessary to ferry troubleshooters out to a ship via helicopter.

Tearing Up the Project Plans

The success of the technology on board the QM2 masks the ulcer-inducing job the IT staff had in installing it. As previously mentioned, they had to build the IT system in a deployment center while the ship itself was being built at a shipyard in France. At this deployment center they painstakingly installed, integrated and tested all the systems. They then took all the equipment apart, boxed it up, and shipped it in crates across the Atlantic, where they had about three months to put it all together and make it work. Finch also had to discard his project plans once the installation began. “We had a beautiful plan. Within two minutes, it went into the bin,” he says, likening the environment?which at one point last December had 6,000 workers frantically hammering, welding and wiring to finish the ship on schedule?to controlled chaos.

Installing the equipment actually became an exercise in strength and stamina. Beliveau, Boltz and just a few helpers had to install the TVs in every guest cabin without the benefit of a working elevator. “If the cabin was on deck 11, that meant 11 flights of stairs,” says Beliveau. Finch spent three months running around the ship, trying to manage the disorder. At one point, it took him three days to chase down someone who could turn on a breaker to get power to his equipment.

In the end, the QM2 was christened on time by Queen Elizabeth II in early January and has been sailing for five months with nary an IT hitch. “We pulled it off,” says Richman, summing up the efforts of a 28-person IT department that has become master and commander of the world’s largest floating IT shop.