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The Royal Australian Navy expects to sign off by the end of the year on its multi-million dollar Project Scorpion upgrade program to replace desktops and servers in a 3,500 seat network across more than 50 warships.

The Navy has also revealed a $10 million relationship that has been running quietly for two years with Kaz Group subsidiary Aspect Computing, to service and support the shipboard networks.

The Navy's head of IT and communications at sea, Captain Simon Cullen, said the design and costing work to replace its on-ship Compaq Pentium II servers and desktops had been completed by Aspect at its Fleet Information Systems Support Organisation at the Garden Island base in Sydney. He said it was hoped contracts could be signed later this year, with the system roll-out to start early next year by Aspect as each ship comes in for routine maintenance.

The Navy will also replace its aging fleet of 3,500 shipboard desktops running NT, with notebooks using the Windows XP operating system. Aspect is also engaged in replacing the shipboard 10Mbit hub-based architecture with 100Mbit Cisco routers over the next year.

The network upgrade is routine, but will also help support the Navy's increased demand for rich media support as it increasingly uses video and other media in support of its defence, border protection and UN activities.

Captain Cullen said the "business focused" service level agreement (SLA) with Aspect was unique in the Defence Department's IT operations. Under the Apsect relationship, commercially-employed civilians - with special security clearance - work alongside enlisted personnel in supporting fleet networks.

Captain Cullen said the program was an example of a trend in Defence toward "reach back" programs, in which the armed forces have sought to supplement the enlisted skills pool with civilian operators.

He said the Navy was in final negotiation with Aspect to renew the support contract, which has so far been worth $10 million over two years of operation.

Under the terms of the arrangement, between 15 and 30 Aspect staff work with five Navy staff at the Garden Island Fleet Information Systems Support Organisation.

The operation uses satellite links to provide ships with remote support - whether they are in the Arabian Gulf or Northern Australia

Though the Aspect staff are civilian personnel, they have been called to respond to catastrophic hardware failures on ships at sea. In one case where a router failed during the exercises with the US Navy called Tandem Thrust, an Aspect engineer was flown out to the exercise for a landing on an aircraft carrier, where he transferred to a helicopter for transport to the Australian ship with the busted router.

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