Stena Bulk, the global shipping company decided to take a cold hard look at its disaster recovery plans after Hurricane Katrina ripped through the US Gulf Coast in 2005.

Company’s operations in Houston, Texas – which lies near the Gulf Coast - were thankfully unaffected by that catastrophic hurricane season. However, the division that oversees technology for the Stena companies - Stena Rederi - concluded that its disaster recovery and business continuity systems needed more work to ensure its global shipping operations would not be affected in times of stormy weather.

"After hurricane Katrina hit, although we had a disaster plan in place, we realised it was not good enough. If there had been a failure in IT, it would have been impossible to talk to ships – except via radio. We would have had difficulty in continuing operations," says Klas Eskilsson, vice president and head of Stena Bulk US operations. "It could have been disaster. We had to not only change disaster plan, but also change our way of working so that, if anything happened such as another hurricane, our staff had the possibility to work remotely at home."

The Gothenburg-based shipping company needed to ensure that data held on its Exchange and SQL servers could remain online, and that communications between shore and ship would be maintained should disaster strike.

Stena Bulk also had a tight deadline to complete its disaster recovery project of less than nine months, "before the next hurricane season of June 2006".

"As a global shipping company, we rely heavily on the continuous exchange of data and email for all our negotiations, deliveries and payments – downtime is simply not an option for us,” says Pär Persson, IT manager of Stena Rederi.

Prior to hurricane Katrina, the company typically relied on communications to handle the ships. The land-based operations talk to the ship captains via mail, phone or radio on where to load, where to bunker for fuel, and handle all the logistics. The company operates about 71 tankers, including some of the largest tankers in the world totalling around 6.6m tonnes deadweight, through several worldwide offices including Houston, London, Singapore, Beijing and Moscow.

The initial disaster recovery plan called for regular backups, and the company had 24 hour deadline to get core systems back up. However, the company wanted to reduce that time gap, to keep its core business systems up and running constantly, 24 hours a day, 365 days a week.

"Our ships never stop, come Christmas or Thanksgiving," says Eskilsson, who adds that the company had grown totally dependent on IT systems to communicate with ships.

"It is vital that our communication system is flawless, and it is always possible to reach the ships. We handle cargo worth millions of dollars. Some of our biggest chips carry one million barrels of oil. It's a high quality operation and we need to direct the ships as to where the cargo is sent. Increasingly, we rely on email," Eskilsson tells Computerworld UK. "Stena is a big group that is run differently in each company. But IT is the brain of the system. When the brain goes down, it is devastating."

Scoping the project

Stena Bulk's IT partner, Xirtix Consutling, worked with the shipping company to assess and chose a disaster recovery plan.

"To scope the project, we looked at individual business processes and assessed the specific amount of time that the business could keep running without that service. We narrowed the list to a possible seven to ten core business applications, and then we asked the business how long it could function without that application. We spoke to people from each of the business disciplines – communication, accounting, marketing, operations – and we looked at each of their applications. We then took those core business processes that could never be down, and implemented a disaster recovery solution for those," says Nick Dragna, lead consultant at Xirtix.

At Stena Bulk, IT is run as a service department for the business. "Decisions are made in the business, and then IT is tasked with accomplishing them. We do not have the departmental scope to say: 'This is how we are going to work'. So there is always a lot of communications from the business to the IT department," says IT director Persson.

The IT department assessed various ways to manage its data centres, including a costly storage area network that would have involved replicating the entire infrastructure of each company.

At the end of the day, the business decided to augment its existing tape and off-site storage solution, which was needed for compliance reasons, with Neverfail for Microsoft Exchange and Neverfail for Microsoft SQL Server.

Neverfail for Microsoft Exchange protects and maintains e-mail communications, while Neverfail for Microsoft SQL Server protects the company's ship management system, Shipnet.

Dragna explains: "We looked for replication that matched our existing infrastructure of tape and off-site storage, rather than implement an entirely new infrastructure. That led us to look at Neverfail, as it provided value for what we needed to accomplish. The Neverfail product is clever, which can do complex things, but is ostensibly simple to put together."

Rollover in seven minutes

"We chose Neverfail, aside from all the technical aspects of it, because it enables us to switch to servers in Sweden without interrupting the business at any point. Every Thursday, we switch over to Neverfail to make sure they are functioning properly to regularly test. It's a completely seamless roll over. The business doesn't know it is happening," Eskilsson elucidates. "That sold us on it."

The US operation can roll over its entire server data to its Sweden division in seven minutes.

Stena Bulk backs up its data every day, but also needs to keep almost a terabyte of data live every day. "Our goal is to maintain a year of active data in the fail over process. Just under a terabyte is live data, including emails, files and folders, which is needed to keep the business running," says Eskilsson.
While Stena Bulk has not felt the impact of a disaster, the company is already reaping the benefits of the Neverfail system. Persson says the products have "already provided a return on our investment by helping us keep our business up and running through any situation."

"We assumed disaster recovery and business continuity system would be used in big national disasters. But we had a situation recently where the city cut power in our Houston building, so we simply rolled servers to our fail over servers in Sweden, and the business continued as normal. We averted a power outage, and it allowed us to keep business running as if it was a disaster. We can also roll our systems over to do maintenance on the existing servers, or test functionality," details Dragna.

The company has used the product to keep operations going during a two-day system maintenance and power shut-down operation in the company's Houston office. It transferred its servers over to its Gothenburg offices in order to keep systems running until power was restored, with no disruption to the business.

Neverfail also works with Citrix Presentation Server to enable remote working for travelling employees.

"We have the core business servers and data replicated to Gothenburg, and all our applications deployed on a Citrix Presentation Server system. This allows external access, so an employee can work while at home or travelling via an Internet connection on a Blackberry or laptops."

From a business perspective, this increased ability to travel has also allowed land-based company representatives to meet customers face to face, while maintaining communication with ships.

Stena Bulk's petroleum shipping operations has accomplished its goal of implementing a solution that would ensure uninterrupted access to mission-critical applications at all times.