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Swedish mining firm LKAB revamps data backup setup to support downtime avoidance goals

State-owned Swedish mining company LKAB scooped the prize for Best Data Security and Data Protection Project at the Best of VMworld 2019 Europe User Awards. Here we run through what the project involved

With a 24-hour, 365 days of the year production schedule to uphold, uptime and resiliency are top-of-mind concerns for the technology team at Swedish state-owned mining company, LKAB.

If work within the mines has to stop for any reason, the costs involved with restarting production again can be crippling, with the firm estimating it saves millions of pounds each month through downtime avoidance.

The company runs one of the largest underground iron ore mines in the world, producing 26.9Mt of the substance in 2018 alone, and is working to up production by 5% year-on-year (YoY) right through until 2021.

“Our competitors usually do open pit mining, while we have a deep, large mine, which makes the whole setup a lot more expensive, so efficiency and resiliency are key,” LKAB IT architect Robert Pohjanen, tells Computer Weekly.

The LKAB team relies on several core systems to ensure the business can achieve its growth objectives, while keeping the risk of unscheduled downtime occurring to a minimum.

These include an in-house programme used to monitor the production line. The system also plans out when drilling activities can take place, and is used to analyse the data produced by its mining operations.

If that system were to fail, the LKAB production line would grind to a halt within 24 to 48 hours, it is claimed.

It also operates a people-tracking system to ensure the mines are clear of workers before any overnight blasting activity can take place. A failure of this system would result in a loss of $1m as a direct consequence of the firm’s blasting activities being curtailed, the company claims.

“IT is a critical component of modern mining operations – even more so due to the type of mining we perform,” he said.

So much so, any updates or upgrades to the firm’s IT systems have to be timed to precision, and conducted on a rolling basis, said Pohjanen. “It has to be that way because we are in production all the time,” he added.

The company is not shy of embracing new technology, though, having had self-driving trucks on the ground, assisting its operations, more than 10 years ago, he said.

“LKAB has been the first [for new tech] in many places,” he said. “We don’t like to be first, but we usually happen to be first because we have such a focus on doing things efficiently that we often end up pushing the market forward.”

Global reach

LKAB has subsidiaries all over the world, which adds another dimension to the IT challenges faced by Pohjanen and his team.

“We have three main plants in main places in Sweden, which are all quite close together. And we have a shipping facility in Norway, and productions sites [run by] subsidiaries in the UK and some in China, as well as sales offices in the US, Germany, and Asia,” he said.

“The [organisation] is quite distributed, and the IT needs for those places are also quite different. But we like to manage everything from here in Sweden, and have one pane of glass to administer things, because we don’t have that big an IT department, in terms of headcount.”

So, when the decision was taken to upgrade and modernise LKAB’s legacy, tape-based backup and recovery systems so the firm could start archiving data within the public cloud, all of these factors had to be taken into account.

The company operates a “98% virtualized environment”, with mission-critical data located within a critical Oracle and SQL server databases, and Linux systems.

“We used to spend eight hours per day managing backups,” said Pohjanen, but that has since been cut to four hours per week on average, since the company embarked on a Rubrik-infused revamp of its disaster recovery setup.

“As a result, we’ve gained 234 additional days of productivity back to the business, reallocating two staff members to more strategic projects,” he said.

This has been achieved through the deployment of several different pieces of kit from the Rubrik cloud data management and backup product portfolio. This includes the Rubrik Edge software appliance, which enables its subsidiary offices to backup data locally and replicate it to one of the firm’s datacentres, or archive it to the public cloud.

The appliance is compatible with the existing hardware within LKAB’s sites, including the Nutanix hyper-converged infrastructure that underpins the company’s operations, and has played a key role in helping the firm consolidate down its existing datacentre estate.

The company now operates one primary datacentre, which is supported by a backup facility, and a smaller scale server farm in the UK.

“We used to have lots of traditional datacentres, meaning storage capacity in form of CPU and so on, [with our] virtualisation environment separate. Then we saw the light with Nutanix, because all those separate silos made it really hard to upgrade. For example, when you grow out of a traditional storage system, you can build it out for a while, but then you have to change the controller,” said Pohjanen.

“If you change the controller, then you most definitely have downtime or – in some cases – you even need to migrate data, and we have to be up and running 365 days a year, so that’s not fun.

“The Nutanix [software-defined] approach to everything suited us very well and we liked it, and Rubrik comes from the same thinking, so we just went for it, despite not really knowing the product itself, but knowing enough about the setup to be assured it would suit what we needed it for.”

LKAB also leans on Rubrik Polaris, which is a software-as-a-service (SaaS) centralised management system, to keep tabs on the data scattered across its various global subsidiaries.

Reaping the benefits of moving over to Rubrik

Aside from the datacentre consolidation benefits, the setup’s ease of use has also contributed towards a 95% reduction in the time it takes to resolve IT helpdesk tickets within the LKAB tech team, he added.

“Previously, only Level 2 technicians could perform restores. Rubrik is so easy to use that Level 1 technicians can own this task, decreasing overall ticket resolution times. Previously, restore tickets could take an average of 5 hours to resolve – now it takes 15 minutes,” he said.

The Rubrik deployment has paved the way for the company to ramp up its use of public cloud resources, and this is a direction the company is intent on doubling down on now this project is complete, said Pohjanen. However, there remains some groundwork that it still needs to lay to make that possible

“Certain applications that we’re buying actually have a better delivery model if you buy a cloud service,” he said. “So the software is cheaper to buy in the cloud, but the governance for it is much harder for us because we have a governance model in place for on-premise delivery, but we’re now trying to do the same where setting a governance mode for cloud is concerned too.”

“One thing we’re using Rubrik and Nutanix for [is to protect us] from being locked into any cloud, and we’re going to have a hybrid [model] for many, many years to come, so we don’t want to have any lock-in effects.”

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