Navy throws manuals overboard

Navy officials are using Extensible Markup Language to give the heave-ho to the countless, cumbersome technical manuals that accompany a ship each time it leaves port.

Late last year, the Naval Air Systems Command (Navair) selected software from Software AG to provide XML-based technical manuals for use on the Navy's 12 active aircraft carriers. The decision

followed completion of a five-month pilot program involving four Navy ships to determine if relying on computer-based manuals for maintenance would work in a real-world setting.

"We finished the pilot in November [2003], and we have proven that using XML to store manuals digitally and enable [them] for smart tagging and searching saves the Navy time and money in both the cost of the materials [and] man-hours saved," said William Ruh, senior vice president of professional services at Software AG, a German company with American headquarters in Reston, Va.

"The Navy knew it could have used an older technology with a document-

management system, but that XML was the better way to go," Ruh said.

Karen Meloy, deputy commander of

the Navy's eBusiness Operations Office in Mechanicsburg, Pa., which ran the pilot, said the first deployments proved the

program is worth the money being spent on it.

"It's wonderful to see that [the Defense Department] uses processes that work

instead of inventing something completely new," she said. "Prototyping in this

manner is indicative of good stewardship."

When a ship leaves port, it carries

tens of thousands of pages of technical manuals, often stored in row after row of binders.

When a system malfunctions, a piece of equipment breaks down or a network goes off-line, the technician responsible for maintenance often pores through thousands of pages of technical paperwork to find the solution to the problem.

However, using XML, the same technician, at a workstation, could enter

a phrase into a search field and immediately retrieve the specific answer to the problem.

The Navy has been investing more and more in interactive electronic technical manuals to replace paper manuals, and XML has found a comfortable niche in that field.

"The system is always in a state of change," Ruh said. "There are always improvements being made in how to solve problems for any given situation. But when the Navy uses paper-based binders, they still have to go back to the manuals to change the documentation and update them any time there's a change. If you digitize that, you can update remotely and in an instant."

XML allows designers to create their own customized tags, enabling the definition, transmission, validation and interpretation of data among applications and among organizations.

Owen Ambur, co-chairman of the CIO Council's XML Working Group and former vice chairman of the Federal Information and Records Managers Council, said that XML offers a deeper perspective of the information than traditional paper-based systems or even HTML

documents.

"XML will allow for much more intelligent search, retrieval and use of the information," Ambur said. "Simple HTML will tell how to display information but not what is really contained in the documentation or what that information means."

He said that enabling the XML applications with functionality such as XLink, a computer language that provides XML documents with the ability to assert linking relationships among two or more resources, could provide added capabilities that Navy technicians find useful.

Also, digitizing the documents will give the Navy the ability to update them on the fly and in real time, rather than shifting paperwork in and out when the ship makes a call at port.

"I'm happy to hear this came out of a successful pilot program, because it's really the best way to go," Ambur said. "We can spend a lot less time writing up [requests for proposals] because there's no substitute to just trying it out. Instead of spending a lot of money on something that may or may not work, a small amount targeted at the right pilot can have good results."

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