Cutting-Edge IT on a Cruise Ship

The Queen Mary 2's guests are treated to caviar and champagne. They also get a first-class, in-room interactive system that serves up movies, e-mail and more. (Baseline)

When Frank Finch arrived at the Alstom-Chantiers de lAtlantique shipyard in Sainte-Nazaire, France, last September, the Queen Mary 2 was almost ready to head out to sea for her first operational test. Freshly painted, the QM2 looked nearly finished on the outside.

The inside was another story. Thousands of workers swarmed through its interior every day, scurrying to meet an immovable deadline: Jan. 12, when she was leaving for her sold-out maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Finch had the same deadline. The director of worldwide technology for Cunard Line had to make sure the ships information systems matched the expectations of passengers who paid from $2,800 to $37,499 to make that voyage. These were passengers who could dine at celebrity chef Daniel Bouluds restaurant, relax in a thalassotherapy pool at the spa, or munch on caviar and drink champagne in the ballroom.

Cunard also wanted to prove itself to Carnival Corp., which had bought the firm in 1999. Founded in 1840, Cunard popularized the phrase "Getting there is half the fun" to promote the entertainment value of ocean liners as their practical value waned. Now, after not having built a ship since the Queen Elizabeth 2 was launched in 1969, Cunard was entrusted with building the largest passenger ship ever, at a cost of $780 million, including $8 million for information technology. With 1,310 cabins, she would carry more than 2,600 passengers.

Finch was determined to give the QM2 a first-class network infrastructure. In contrast with the converted closet that serves as the QE2s computer room, the QM2 got three communications, or "comm," rooms on decks 5, 6 and 10, each in a different fire zone, for servers as well as other electronics like the public address system. Major computer systems would be duplicated between the two main comm rooms, and fiber-optic cabling would be laid out in parallel connections, so that every major component of the network had a backup.

Carnival allows Cunard a high degree of independence in information-technology decisions. Yet, Finch took a chance by implementing a cutting-edge interactive TV system instead of the more conservative choice Carnival recommended. If his choice failed, embarrassing the company in front of its customers, he knew he would get the Donald Trump treatment: Hed be fired.

A year previous, the information-systems team had started assembling and testing computers and networks in a Miami warehouse. In August 2003, they took it apart, carefully labeled servers, racks, switches, hubs and cables, and loaded it into five 40-foot shipping containers for transport overseas.


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When the first container arrived at the shipyard, Finch waited until about 7 p.m., after the construction activity within the ship had died down, before ordering the container unloaded. The night was cold, wet and windy as a crane hoisted shrink-wrapped pallets of computer equipment into the air and swung them across to what would eventually be the Terrace Pool at the back of Deck 8, where Finch waited with a mixed crew of techies and shipyard workers.

Finch personally helped lift 240-pound server racks onto dollies and wrestle them down the ships dark hallways, nearly from one end to the other, then carry them down two decks because the elevators werent working yet. Putting his back into the job was something he did partly to show solidarity with the laborers who controlled the ship.

"Carrying boxes like any other guy goes a long way toward getting them to help you out," Finch says. "If you decide to be the boss on the sidelines with the clipboard, barking out orders, that wont get you anywhere."

Still, he was boss enough to set a tough challenge: Have the computer room operational within 24 hours.

Although an arbitrary goal, it made his staff understand how carefully equipment had been labeled, cabled and packed for shipment in Miami so it could be put back together quickly in France. They worked until 4 a.m. to make it happen.

Next Page: The grand plan: Flexibility.