Chat tools let sailors collaborate

The Navy is using a form of peer-to-peer technology to connect its personnel on ships with one another and with shore-based colleagues as part of the Network Centric Innovation Center's Collaboration@Sea project.

Cmdr. Timothy Jara, director of NCIC, said there are several types of "chats," a simple form of P2P, going on across the Navy. That work began on the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (pictured) last year as part of Collaboration@Sea, which is focused on establishing a global, Web-based, collaborative environment for deployed units. Collaboration@Sea addresses the challenges of connecting a large group of worldwide users to information in a low-bandwidth environment with intermittent connectivity through a number of means, including chat capability for real-time collaboration.

Lotus Development Corp. Domino servers and Sametime software are used to support the Collaboration@Sea network, but other chat tools are also being used, including Microsoft Corp.'s NetMeeting, Jara said.

The chat tools can help sailors at sea make repairs more quickly when they need to contact technicians on shore for assistance. Using e-mail, phone and other naval message systems have been acceptable methods, but they can cause downtime while technicians wait for an answer. With peer-to-peer technology, personnel at sea and onshore have real-time audio, video and text communication tools to help them find solutions.

"It's helping to reduce radio communications...while still keeping track of the other ships in the battle group," Jara said. The chats are divided into 25 topics — from troubleshooting to keeping tabs on the other ships in an officer's group — and there are as many as five or six people in each room.

In addition to replacing radio calls, the chats are used for routine operational and administrative duties and have become an alternative to the "text-based teletype messages that the Navy has used for years," Jara said. "Everyone is very excited. Communication is clearer in the written word than garbled over radio communication."

For now, the P2P machines are usually housed in a ship's command center, but the Navy is moving toward wireless connections to aid officers in certain duties, such as searching for contraband on ships in the Persian Gulf, he said.

Although real-time, peer-to-peer chat tools are used in many organizations, their implementation is not usually planned, as in the Collaboration@Sea project. For example, in a recent Gartner Inc. survey of 330 business users, half of whom were in the public sector, 42 percent said they used instant-messaging tools at work, said Neil MacDonald, Gartner's vice president and director of research. But only 21 percent of those surveyed said instant messaging was supported by their central information technology departments.

"This has been blessed by some central IT departments, but the real story is that the bulk of the people using [instant messaging] in the public sector are doing it on their own," MacDonald said. "It came in through the back door, just like browsers did, and is driven by workers' experiences outside of work, where they see how useful a business tool it can be."

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