Stena Bulk deploys disaster recovery for smooth sailing

As an international organisations that depends on up-to-the-minute business data through email and other applications, shipping company Stena Bulk has implemented a disaster recovery solution to avoid the devastating expense and risk of downtime.

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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."

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