CIO's IT security challenges all at sea

The challenges faced by Hong Kong based CIO running systems floating all over the world's oceans

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Few would envy the responsibilities of Patrick Slesinger, the director and CIO of the Hong Kong-based Wallem Group which is involved in ship management, capital partnership broking and maritime IT.

Wallem currently has 308 ships under management, including 100 oil tankers, chemical tankers, gas tankers, bulk carriers, containerships, general cargo ships, reefers, car carriers and passenger ships; a total of 52 million tonnes.

The group employs about 7,000 people ashore and at sea. There are 6,000 people working on Wallem-managed ships and another 600 employed in nearly 50 Wallem offices in 18 countries around the world.

"There're enough problems controlling and managing IT infrastructure when you know precisely where it is," said Slesinger, "let alone when it is constantly moving at sea."

Complex security issues

IT security issues for Wallem on the ocean waves were made difficult because each vessel was a moving office with multiple systems and LANs and crews were regularly rotated.

The group also had a high level of shore-based extranet-based systems for staff and clients, a wide range of Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) enabled applications and was also involved with many joint ventures, some with minority shareholdings.

"Data security is a big problem because all of these mobile offices contain a lot of corporate and commercial information. A ship manager is the same as the facilities manager in IT, looking after other people's hardware and operating it."

He said that the vessels added a whole new dimension to IT management, not being connected to the internet and not being physically easy to reach if on-site support was required.

"Shipping is probably the last industry in the world that is still dealing with decoupled clients because we don't have 'always-on' connections, so we have to be good at data base synchronisation and replication, because it's going over satellites, via Inmarsat," Slesinger said.

Some Wallem vessels did have VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal), which was always on, but the majority are Inmarsat-enabled, where Wallem paid by the minute or by the bytes. VSAT refers to receive-only or receive-transmit terminals installed at dispersed sites connecting to a central hub via satellite, using small diameter antenna dishes.

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