Taller than an 18-storey building and longer than three football fields, the US$500 million Sapphire Princess towers above the cruise-liner like Hilton Hotel by Auckland's Princes Wharf. With 2700 passengers getting on and 2700 more getting off, it's a chaotic scene, as Princess Cruises and Customs personnel try to process thousands of staff and passengers as quickly as possible.
The Seattle-based Sapphire Princess, launched a year ago and weighing 118,000 tonnes, is the latest in a long line of 'megaliners' built to cater for the upsurge in cruise liner tourism.
As big as a small town and too large to squeeze under the Auckland Harbour Bridge, the 290-metre long Sapphire Princess promises luxury with five pools, nine restaurants and cafes, two nightclubs, eight jacuzzis, a mini golf course, a wedding chapel (with webcams) and the biggest internet café at sea.
Getting on board is no easy task. Technology helps keep out the riff-raff but once on board, the ship's magnetic card system makes life so much easier.
The APAS (aerial performance analysis system) smart cards work as a combined security access card and credit card and were developed by Cisco. The system registers crew and passengers by photographing them as they board or leave the vessel.
The barcoded cards also give security access to their rooms, the 29 IBM PC cybercafe and other parts of the vessel and it can also be used for payment like a credit card. The cards integrate with the ship's POS system, created by US vendor Micros, featuring 105 touchscreen terminals in bars and shops, so customers need not carry cash. When a purchase is made, the card is swiped and the customer's name, photo and cabin details are produced for verification and the transaction recorded on their account.
This system also links with the vessel's proprietary hotel management system called PMS and Concierge reservations system, which have been developed in-house over the past 20 years because no suitable alternatives existed on the market.
Concierge allows passengers to make bookings for various restaurants, spa rooms and the golf course, using an onboard telephone, connecting them to the ship's six-member call centre.
Princess Cruises says this is more 'personal' than TV-based systems used on other ships. The software also spots if passengers have double-booked themselves elsewhere.
PMS handles all data relating to passengers and crew, featuring links to customs and immigration, accounts, and online purchasing. Passenger information, such as passport and credit card details, can be supplied over the web, transmitted over a secure satellite network, so ship crew are ready to give the passengers their cards as they board.
Purchasing for supplies is done online from the ship to the corporate office in Los Angeles, using software Princess Cruises developed in-house with Boston-based vendor CrunchTime. Orders are relayed back and forth to Los Angeles, which also handles the ordering for Princess Cruises' 11 sister companies that include P&O Cruises.
This system integrates with an automated management ordering system (AMOS) called Xantic, a US-made shipping software that also handles ship maintenance and spare parts stocking.
All this links with a centralised computer room on board the Sapphire Princess which has five data hubs connected through a fibre optic backbone, some 600 data points and 3000 kilometres of wiring running the computer network, power systems, TVs in each of the 1337 cabins, plus 42 large screen TVs in the bars.
The vessel has three main server racks equipped to handle everything from security, door keys, POS charging, billing, inventory tracking, with back-up systems should there be problems with fibre optics or one of the many servers.
Navigation uses proprietary systems, including radar, echo sounders, GPS, compass, anemometer, pressure sensors and speed logs. Such data is displayed on 'the bridge' allowing deck officers to safely and economically steer the vessel between ports at up to 22 knots using dual gas turbine/diesel electric propulsion.
IT manager on board
Helping to run all this IT is the ship's on board computer officer, either Cape Town born-and-raised Werner Berkenstein and Donna Shields from Toronto.
Computer operations is part of the hotel department, which is supported by shipboard systems at the head office in California. The computer officer, who is helped by an on board assistant, is the first point of contact for most technical issues, but where necessary, shipboard systems will be contacted for specific advice.
At the top sits Rafael Sanchez, CIO of Carnival Corporation, the Miami-based parent to Princess Cruises, and the world's largest cruise company with 77 ships.
Sanchez, an IT industry veteran of 20 years, joined Carnival in March from Burger King, where he was CIO and vice president. In a press statement following the appointment of Sanchez in March this year, Carnival senior vice-president Pamela Conover said IT was a "critical component" of the company's recent and future rapid growth, which will see it launch 13 new ships over the next four years.
Sanchez would develop corporate-wide IT strategies. He would head Carnival's IT council (composed of CIOs from its various operating companies) and be responsible for corporate IT shared services applications and development in associations with the brands' CEOs and CIOs.
Mark Dundore, director of business support systems at Princess Cruises, and Chris Louie, project leader of shipboard systems at Princess Cruises, are able to speak for Sanchez from Los Angeles.
Business support systems cover six different groups, including shipboard systems. It has 70 IT staff and an overall IT equipment budget of "millions".
While Dundore plans and budgets in his office, Louie can travel the world to where the ships are. Louie co-ordinates various refits and related logistics to ensure people and materials are where they should be at the right time.
"There are tight time frames and the ship has to be ready to sail. It is very stressful organising and ensuring this," Louie says.
Dundore says one of the main challenges is because vessels are always moving, the satellite links and related communications have to be designed for a "not always connected environment". Thus, they need to continue operating, be able to work from Alaska, or wherever, and then be able to talk to home office. Software must also account for crossing different time zones and the International Date Line.
Recently, Australian passengers complained when the Sapphire Princess ran out of VB beer, but Dundore says this was because a cyclone near Darwin prevented the delivery of supplies, rather than any technological failures.
The Sapphire Princess also has its own wireless network for its business systems, as well as allowing 512KB wireless access for passengers who bring their laptops.
Another major challenge, Dundore says, comes from the long lead times in designing, building and launching ships, so everything has to be ordered well in advance, up to three years ahead.
This means looking at technologies too, such as incorporating wireless into ship designs.
"Right now, there is an explosion of technology. Passengers are demanding cell phone coverage and to bring laptops on board. They want coverage in every cabin," he says.
It will be a "huge challenge" retrofitting thousands of cabins on vessels, particularly as cruise liners tend to have only a few days down time to allow re-fits. He also points out shipboard software is becoming more web-based, platform independent and with relational databases.
The Sapphire Princess was built in the Mitsubishi shipyards in Nagasaki, Japan, at the same time as its sister vessel, the Diamond Princess. The work took four months.
"The precision of the Japanese was amazing. They did very detailed, cadcam drawings on as to how a door would be fitted, for example. When you went on board, the workmanship and installation was how it showed on the cadcam," Dundore added.
Back on board the vessel, Shields takes up the story. "Everything is planned well in advance. From a technological side, our team members arrived at the ship months before the ready date to ensure the technological needs are met."
There were some language issues, but using sign language helped overcome them. "Everything from electrical requirements in the computer room, hub closets and administrative offices, to the actual placement of data points, are overseen, tested and scrutinised to obtain the very best of results," she says.
After touring Australasia and the South Pacific, en route to Alaska for the northern summer, Shields feels the Sapphire Princess could have done with larger hub closets, more spare ethernet lines and greater use of wireless access points.
However, as with other rollouts, there is only so much testing you can do before working out the quirks of a system before going live.
"There is always some tweaking to do when the entire ship's compliment starts running all their various applications, be they part of the hotel system, or proprietary software on a local PC.
"We are prepared and sail with additional IT staff to ensure the smooth transition from set-up to going live," she adds.
No days off
Berkenstein says onboard work keeps him busy, dealing with over 100 client PCs, 105 POS registers and 14 servers.
"One of the aspects of the job is that you never have a day off for the entire time you are on board, which is probably one of the biggest differences between working on land compared to working at sea. Cruise ships like Sapphire are floating cities that are always on the move. As computer officer, you are on call 24 hours, seven days a week for six months at a time," he says.
Berkenstein previously worked in the hotel industry, joining Princess Cruises in 2001, saying that working at sea combines his hotel experience with his interest in computers.
"The best thing about working at sea is that you can close your eyes in one country and wake up a few hours later in another. The travelling aspect is what draws many of the crew to work at sea. Yes, even though it is a non-stop operation, we do take time off to enjoy all the beautiful ports of call around the world."
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