News Article 20/07/2007

Ulysses streamlines software updates (Digital Ship, June- July 2007, p.34)

Maritime software company Ulysses Systems is improving its software updating process, so users can do more updating by satellite instead of by CD.

Maritime software company Ulysses Systems has installed a ''binary comparator'' in its software, which allows the shipboard software to be updated via Inmarsat, with minimum data being transferred.
The binary comparator will automatically compare the version of software onboard with the new software to be uploaded.
Ulysses Systems has a policy of updating its software every 6 months, so it can include new areas of functionality and functions requested by customers.
"We make a lot of upgrades because we believe that all software has to be improved to really become a performance support tool for multi-tasking users," says Dimitris Lyras, advisor to the board of Ulysses Systems.
With the binary comparator and other methods, Ulysses says that the need to send CDs in advance of an upgrade is being progressively reduced.
As we are all aware, getting post to a vessel can take a long time, particularly if it is forwarded a few times from shipping agent to shipping agent until it catches the ship, but the post generally arrives eventually.
It is standard practice in most shore industries to do a company wide software upgrade over a single weekend, This can be achieved in shipping once the CD's have been received provided on board staff are willing to perform the upgrade.
So if the shipping company has a large fleet, with the dual issues of the time taken to get CD-ROMs onboard every ship, and shore staff going through every ship one by one to install the upgrade, it can take as long as five months to upgrade the software on the entire fleet.
However this is not necessarily a problem, because the system can operate satisfactorily with different vessels using different versions of the software.
"If you do start the process and have 2 different versions for 5 months, the system still works fine," he says.
If it's particularly important to a shipping company that the whole fleet is updated simultaneously, then it is possible to achieve this, even if the update is sent by CD-ROM rather than by satellite, by making sure all vessels have the relevant update CD-ROM before the process is started, while assisting on board staff to achieve the upgrade remotely.
The actual update only takes an hour or so per vessel. "Many of our clients do it on the weekend," says Mr Lyras.
Specific needs of shipping software Mr Lyras stresses that there are many differences in emphasis between shipping and other industries.
The obvious one is that onboard ship there is rarely an information systems specialist able to quickly fix problems which might arise, as there generally is in large companies on shore.
Less obviously is the issue of information control. As we all know e-mail does not maintain controlled versions of documents therefore it is easy to lose track of discussions that could result in apparently unresolved issues with potentially incriminating consequences.
In addition to this the legal leverage on vessels from legal jurisdictions ashore is enormous. If a ship has an incident, local authorities might force the ship to stay in the port until they have all the information they need, rendering tremendous tactical leverage on how a potential claim is settled by the ship owner.
In a major claim or class action claim it is quite possible that local authorities will confiscate the e-mail server of the ship and the shore side.
With vast numbers of uncontrolled emails within these servers this is likely to compromise any legal standing of the ship operator.
"We're talking about an industry where what we say, and what we write down has to stand up to scrutiny in different jurisdictions," he says.
Whilst most shore companies could cope with the idea of local authorities investigating their internal communications, shipping companies feel extremely uncomfortable about this whenever it happens, due to the potential of many local authorities to use their own legal structures to put seafarers in jail without trial and put shipping companies into very difficult positions.
"You can be coerced into compromising legal settlement as people are doing in the US," he says.
So the maritime industry has a far greater need to have a controlled method of performing internal communications, one that is far easier to keep track of than e-mail.
Furthermore, shipboard software will be used by senior staff, who do not see operating software as their principal work skill.
This is a big contrast to shore industries, where senior staff often do not use software at all apart from to send e-mails, and most specialist software is used by dedicated support staff who do very little other than operate that software, and so have much more time to get to grips with it.
"It is unreasonable to expect senior managers to operate land based software products designed for support staff," Mr. Lyras says.