Navy opts for thin-client systems onboard ships

Decision reflects need to harness more computing power without burdening shipboard resources.

Honolulu — Aircraft carriers look big enough to handle any number of computer systems, but systems add weight, take space and drain electricity.

To harness more computing power without burdening shipboard resources, the Navy has decided to deploy thin clients capable of operating in a multilevel security environment, according to a top Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (Spawar) engineer, who spoke at AFCEA International's TechNet Asia-Pacific 2005 conference here last week.

Bob Stephenson, chief technology officer for command, control, communications, computers and intelligence operations at Spawar, said the Navy plans to use the thin-client systems from Sun Microsystems on all major surface ships in the fleet.

Thin clients will be installed on 160 vessels, Stephenson said.

Stephenson said the Navy will install thin clients only in key command centers, and ships would have a mix of thin and PC-based clients.

Stephenson estimated that small ships such as destroyers would have 10 thin clients while carriers and amphibious ships would have 100, leading to a total of a few thousand throughout the Navy.

The move to thin clients is because of the growing number of operations the United States conducts with allies, he said. Command and control in a coalition environment is supported by the Combined Enterprise Regional Information Exchange System (Centrixs), originally developed by the U.S. Central Command and championed by the Navy. The worldwide Centrixs hub is located at a satellite dish farm in Honolulu.

The Defense Department designated Centrixs as its Multinational Information Sharing Program in February 2004.

As the United States forms more coalition partnerships, each new partner requires a different version of Centrixs with a different level of classification.

That could require the use of separate computers to support different versions at different clearance levels, Stephenson said, a burdensome requirement for shipboard use.

The thin client puts the processing on servers that can each serve information to multiple users. The shipboard systems can operate on the Secret IP Router Network and easily switch to various kinds and classifications of Centrixs.

Mario Diaz, Sun Microsystems' Navy sales manager, said the Navy will deploy the company's Sun Ray thin clients connected to servers running the Trusted Solaris operating system, which can collapse multiple networks onto a single network while providing separate levels of classification.

Brian Madden, a thin-client consultant in Washington, D.C., said shipboard use of thin clients gives the Navy significant savings in terms of weight and redundant cabling, and marks the coming of age for Trusted Solaris as an efficient way to control access to multiple secure networks from one device.

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