Carrier WiFi

Opportunity From Disaster

When Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast last year, the Northrop Grumman shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss., was almost completely devastated. The yard's data center was heavily damaged, and no communications systems remained intact.

The remarkable recovery that followed, largely enabled by mobile and wireless technology, has provided a big leap in the mobilization of Northrop Grumman's operations not only in Pascagoula but across southern Mississippi and Louisiana, and has helped Northrop Grumman Ship Systems (NGSS) become a leader in the use of wireless technology in the shipbuilding sector. Indeed, many in Northrop Grumman now view the havoc wreaked by Katrina as a "disastrous opportunity" that has galvanized the division's IT efforts and hastened the deployment of next-generation 802.11 and WiMax networks across the company's operations.

"We've positioned ourselves to be a leader in mobility applications and wireless infrastructure," as a result of the Katrina recovery, says J.D. Longmire, director of IT operations for the shipbuilding division. "What we're doing today [to recover from Katrina] is helping drive some of the enterprise adoption of this technology as well."

Headquartered at Pascagoula, NGSS -- which had $3.0 billion in revenue in 2005 -- has two other primary shipbuilding centers on the Gulf Coast, in New Orleans and in Tallulah, La. All were severely damaged in the storm. The first response to the catastrophe, after ensuring the safety of the 19,000 NGSS employees scattered across the Gulf Coast, was to find a way to communicate with the shipyards and to get the data center back up and working. Establishing a command and control center, distributing food, and trucking in 20,000 gallons of fuel, NGSS first-responders also distributed satellite phones and two-way radios to create a basic communication system.

The next step was establishing the IT crisis room, which was staffed the evening after the storm hit. Longmire's team began deploying a wireless 802.11 LAN to handle the re-emergent data traffic, bringing in a group of trailers that were connected to the network. A week later, a large fraction of the sections of the 675-acre shipyard that were not utterly destroyed were back online with either voice or data communications -- or both. Then the task of integrating the company's pre-Katrina plans for a network-infrastructure upgrade with the regeneration program for the shipyard while building in business continuity systems for future disasters began.

"Before the hurricane we already had a facilities modernization program underway," says Longmire, "involving an infrastructure upgrade to a high-availability network. So we leveraged that to inject mobility and wireless infrastructure into the environment."

While a limited 802.11 network was up and running within days of the disaster, the complete regeneration plan involves designing and installing a WLAN for the full shipyard by the third quarter of this year. Ultimately, Longmire envisions a "cyber-shipyard" comprising an 802.11 mesh network (including a VOIP system), a WiMax network for point-to-point links to remote facilities, RFID tags for both employee badges and asset and materials tracking, mobile handheld devices for supervisors, inspectors and the like, and integrated mobile applications for reducing the mountainous paperwork currently required for building ships.

"We've moved from the initial pre-Katrina pilot program into an emergency environment," explains Longmire, "and now we're moving into a fully engineered environment that will take into account our overall mobile strategy."

Much of the initial network infrastructure, including the first WiMax deployment, will be in place by the end of this year, with Phase-2 systems like asset tracking and mobile inspection following in 2007. (Citing NGSS's Department of Defense contracts, Longmire declines to specify the vendors for the programs.) The cost of the first phase, Longmire estimates, will be around $3 million for all three shipyards.

And if Katrina had never happened?

"I think we'd be looking at a longer, phased approach with the same deliverables ending in 2008," laughs Longmire. "As it is, we'll have the major infrastructure in place by the end of 2006 or beginning of '07.

"It's amazing what you can accomplish when you don't have a choice."

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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