Cruise line firm to manage its 4,000 PCs remotely

Carnival Cruise Lines plans to deploy a system to remotely manage and provision 4,000 PCs, including 1,200 installed on the company's 19 ships -- eliminating the need to fly technicians to various ports of call to handle critical upgrades or fixes.

Doug Eney, vice president for information systems engineering at Carnival Cruise Lines, a division of Carnival Corp. in Miami, said the remote PC management system from On Technology Corp. in Waltham, Mass., will literally save him from "flying people around the globe" to perform upgrades to shipboard computers.

Eney said he chose On Technology's iCommand software over competing products such as Microsoft Corp.'s Systems Management Server because it met the demands of Carnival's unique client/server architecture. Although Microsoft's product could handle remote management of PCs connected to a high-speed LAN, it can't do the same for remote clients connected over slower links such as the C-band satellite system Carnival uses with its shipboard PCs, Eney said.

The satellite system provides Carnival with 1Mbit/sec. total bandwidth, but that bandwidth is shared among all the ships. That drops the effective data rate to and from each vessel to 128Kbit/sec.

Eney said Carnival has just completed a pilot of iCommand with 200 shore-based computers and will start to deploy the software throughout its network over the next year. Eney said the remote management software will provide Carnival with a good return on investment and a "quick payback" but declined to provide specific financial details.

Valerie O'Connell, an analyst at Aberdeen Group Inc. in Boston, said that for companies with 20 or more PCs, automating updates to both operating systems and applications makes sense because of the time needed to do such tasks manually.

Eney, in the midst of installing another set of patches to fight the Blaster worm, which has infested hundreds of thousands of Windows-based computers worldwide this week, said automated patch management would definitely help in a world where "instead of taking a vitamin once a day, you get once-a-day Microsoft patches." O'Connell said that when it comes to patch management, "anybody who tries to save a couple of pennies by not automating patch management does not understand what they are dealing with."

The iCommand software will also help Carnival save time and money in constant migrations from one Microsoft operating system to another, Eney said. And it will help when updating numerous applications used ashore and afloat to handle everything from passenger credit card purchases (roughly half of Carnival's 1,200 onboard PCs serve as point-of-sale systems), to ship parts, food and beverage inventories, as well as passenger and crew e-mail systems.

Phil Neray, vice president for marketing at On Technology, said the iCommand system includes a software console installed at Carnival that contains a database of all of the company's PCs, their operating systems and the applications running on each of them. When Carnival needs to do an upgrade or install a patch, all an operator needs to do is drag and drop an icon of the software onto the icon of a PC on the screen.

That action in turn sends the software package or patch to an "agent" on the remote device, which then installs it. Neray said the PC doesn't even have to be turned on to perform the upgrade -- the agent includes a "wake-up" function, which automatically turns it on when a patch is sent.

Eney said his pilot project showed that rolling out iCommand in a heterogeneous computing environment is a challenge. Though Carnival standardized on PCs from Dell Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co., neither the hardware nor key software components such as drivers are identical. That has at times complicated the use of the "wake-up" software.

In such a complex environment, Eney said, there is "no such thing as instant gratification." He recommended that any company seeking to use iCommand set up a good pilot and test plan before widespread deployment is attempted.

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