Crystal Cruises, an ocean cruising companies, is using an accelerator appliance to boost internet speeds over satellite connections to retain customers, boost its reputation among the travelling cognoscenti, and save money.
Bjorn Andersson, manager of shipboard and network operations for Crystal Cruises, spoke to Computer Weekly about the problems it faced.
Computer Weekly: What was the project?
Andersson: We installed F5's BIG-IP Web Accelerator 4500 to enable global high-speed internet access on our fleet of ships. Installation began in July 2007 and was completed at the end of August 2007.
What is the hardware and software environment?
Andersson: On board ship, we use Dell desktops with Windows Vista OS. These connected via radio to our mobile Wi-Fi/phone system, which is provided by SeaMobile. Our satellite service provider is MTN. We currently pay for a guaranteed 512kb/s connection, but they let us spike up to 3mbit per ship if available on the satellite serving that region.
What payback period or cost avoidance do you expect to achieve?
Andersson: 128k of bandwidth over our satellite feed costs £12,000 per month per ship. If F5 delivers only what they guaranteed, the project will pay for itself in a month.
What return on their investment do you expect?
Andersson: We expect to maintain the same revenues but deliver a superior experience to our guests. However, we are also finding that some guests simply will not book a luxury cruise unless they can access the internet 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Because we specialise in exotic destinations, as far away as the Antarctic, you can imagine it is unlikely we could get an engineer to fix any connectivity problems amongst the penguins.
On a few occasions, IT departments of large multinational organisations have contacted me when a senior executive and their family is due to travel with us. They needed to check if our systems were compatible with their laptop or PDA. If we could not absolutely guarantee 100% connectivity, they would have to cancel their booking. The only way Crystal Cruises can keep doing business with this kind of profile of passenger is to keep them connected, no matter what. This is becoming increasingly important for us, so providing immediate high speed web access is a no-brainer.
How will it change your business processes?
Andersson: It is crucial that we do not have to install anything on board ship so everything is located in our Los Angeles datacentre. If something breaks when we are at sea, thanks to Web Accelerator, we are able to maintain performance.
In our industry particularly, everyone is competing to provide the most luxurious amenities. Recently, a cruise critic (Conde Nast Traveller) said that Crystal Cruises' internet is the fastest they have ever experienced, and we are getting similar feedback from the guests.
Why did you choose this particular system?
Andersson: "We asked CDW, our technology partner, to find a system that makes the internet go faster while on a ship over satellite. They suggested F5's BIG-IP Web Accelerator. We said that if F5 could guarantee a 50% upturn in performance, we would buy it, and only on that condition. We plugged it in and F5 delivered four times what they promised.
Who else did you consider?
Andersson: We also considered Microsoft's Internet Acceleration Server, conventional proxies and a Cisco router. In the end we did actually implement Cisco for part of the overall installation. The problem we faced, however, was latency from these systems. In the past, we just added more bandwidth, but that was like having a big engine with a small transmission.
How will it fit into you existing systems?
Andersson: We just plugged Web Accelerator straight into our current network, set our internet accounting appliance, Colubris, which manages our user profiles, and routed traffic automatically.
What problems did you face or anticipate in implementing the project?
Andersson: On land, getting access to the internet is like making sure your kitchen taps at home run with water. But on the open ocean, I was not confident initially because we have tried so many times. All of the other suppliers said they could do it, but in the end they did not deliver. Latency was always a major hurdle, and I never thought F5 could get around that.
What was the result?
Andersson: We tested the system by placing two laptops side by side on deck. One connected via Web Accelerator and the other without and monitored the spiking averages and connectivity from ship-to-ship and from ship-to-shore. I recorded the time it took for each page to load and I just could not stop laughing. Web pages on the accelerated laptop popped up just like you were at home.