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Mercy Ships network transformation nears completion

The tech upgrade brings expanded network capabilities to the NGO's hospital ships, with improved remote consultation and dockside medical services among the expected benefits.

Mercy Ships, an international charity that operates two hospital ships, is wrapping up a networking project that expands the organization's ability to provide remote consultation and dockside medical procedures to patients in Africa.

The charity tapped Presidio, a digital services and solution provider based in New York, for the technology infrastructure initiative. Presidio last month said it had completed a network transformation project for Mercy Ship's Global Mercy vessel. The Global Mercy serves as a shipboard technology template for the Africa Mercy, which is undergoing an upgrade slated to conclude in January 2024.

Fitting ships with IT gear is a bit different from the typical dry-land project. Jonathan Dyson, director of enterprise infrastructure at Mercy Ships, said he has built some 40 data centers in this career, so the task is hardly new to him. But the shipboard element offered a few twists, from power to HVAC systems, when it came to network design planning. Dyson consulted with Presidio, visited maritime trade shows and talked to his peers in the cruise line industry to get a better handle on the design phase.

The evolution of technology also helped. With shipboard space at a premium, the availability of hyper-converged infrastructure proved valuable and avoided having to modify gear to conserve space.

"We were able to use emerging technologies and trends," Dyson said. "Really, just keeping eyes open helped."

IT on the Global Mercy

Technology planning for the Global Mercy got underway in parallel with the building of the ship, which began with the steel cutting ceremony in 2015. Mercy Ships' first purpose-built hospital vessel offered a blank slate from the tech perspective. The organization's previous ships were refitted for the hospital role. The Africa Mercy, for example, is a converted ferry originally built to shuttle railcars between Denmark's Zealand and Funen islands.

Jonathan Dyson, director of enterprise infrastructure, Mercy ShipsJonathan Dyson

"We took a look at what it takes to actually put all the technology on the vessel from scratch," Dyson said.

By 2018, Mercy Ships had selected Dell's VxRail hyper-converged appliances for the Global Mercy's data centers, which operate in an active-active setup. Other infrastructure components on the ship, which was delivered in 2021 and began working with patients in West Africa in 2023, include Cisco Nexus switches, SD-WAN products from Palo Alto Networks and Silver Peak -- now HPE Aruba – and Aruba's wireless offerings and ClearPass network authentication platform.

The Global Mercy, the largest non-governmental organization hospital ship in the world, has more than 5,000 network drops, Dyson noted.

Waheed Choudhry, senior vice president at PresidioWaheed Choudhry

Such scale provided one test in building out the technology infrastructure. The logistics of equipping the ship through multiple project stages and various work locations was another. Network design planning began in late 2015 while the ship was under construction in China, full implementation concluded in late 2021/early 2022 in Belgium, and an aftermarket refit followed in the second half of 2023.

That said, Waheed Choudhry, senior vice president at Presidio, cited planning and designing systems to be "highly available, reliable and stable" as the key challenge. The ship's infrastructure needs to be always working while at sea, he noted.

Expanding services improves remote consultation

The technology loadout improves the viability of remote consultation with medical specialists. Previously, sending an image to a specialist for help with a diagnosis or advice on a surgical procedure was too slow to be practical.

We took a look at what it takes to actually put all the technology on the vessel from scratch.
Jonathan DysonDirector of enterprise infrastructure, Mercy Ships

"It wasn't a go-to solution," Dyson said.

The Global Mercy's network, however, has made remote consultation more of a habit for shipboard medical staff as they've gained confidence in the speed of the process, he added.

The ability to call on remote specialists is an important consideration given the space constraints, even on a ship about two football fields long with six operating rooms and more than 200 medical professionals. "There's only so much room on the vessel," Dyson noted.

The network also facilitates dockside services, in which the Global Mercy provides medical and dental services in air-conditioned tents. In the past, establishing internet connectivity involved running cables from a local ISP on the dock and up the side of the vessel. A cable would also run to a tent equipped with a switch and, from there, cables would be dispersed to switches located in the other tents. Now, Mercy Ships provides Wi-Fi to the entire dockside, reducing the number of devices requiring physical connection and the number of cables, Dyson said. This approach reduces dockside service setup time.

Photo of the 'Africa Mercy' hospital ship.
The 'Africa Mercy' is completing a tech upgrade in South Africa.

Africa Mercy's tech upgrade

Work to upgrade the Africa Mercy's technology to match the Global Mercy's design is ongoing at the Port of East London in South Africa. Dyson said the ship's data centers have been refitted along with its network and wireless capabilities, noting that Presidio engineers have been on hand. The project will wrap up over the next few weeks with the installation of a hospital application.

The East London stop, which also involves a crew change and medical practitioner recruitment, is preparing the ship for medical field service in Madagascar, according to Transnet National Ports Authority, which manages South Africa's seaports.

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