Article

A fish story: Microsoft's fleet goes deep

Margie Semilof

American Seafood LLP, one of the largest suppliers of fresh fish in the U.S., is converting to Windows 2000, Active Directory and adding BizTalk server to improve IT support to the corporation and to its fleet of fishing vessels.

The company is about halfway through the process of converting its five NT 4.0-based production servers to Windows 2000 and to Active Directory. American Seafood is also converting to BizTalk one element of a proprietary application that collects data on fishing vessels, said Dar Khalighi, vice president of information technology at the Seattle-based company.

American Seafood has east and west coast operations. The company's Seattle business is largely concerned with catching fish and managing the fishing vessels and crew. East coast operations focus on selling the fish or turning it into a marketable product.

The IT department provides computing services and applications on the fishing vessels that track both employee activity and the product throughout the corporate enterprise. Khalighi says the biggest IT challenge is supporting its fleet of fishing vessels scattered across the ocean.

Fishing for the future

When the company was planning for Y2K conversions in the mid-1990s, it reviewed all of its computing systems and operational processes for shortcomings and bottlenecks. At that time, the company decided to adopt Microsoft's SQL Server and its enterprise resource planning application for payroll,

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order entry and sales applications, according to Khalighi.

As plans for a new computing environment inched forward, company IT executives decided they needed some type of engine at the core of all their systems to process application data and convert it to a common format.

"The idea is to push data to where it's needed so when the next process wants it, it's there," Khalighi said. "The worst is when you look for data, and it's not there. That's when you waste time."

The Conversion

The company's main application is tracking its product from the sea to the sale. Each trawler has its own server and an IT-savvy sailor on board who logs employee information, reviews vessel maintenance and keeps tabs on production.

In Seattle, employees keep track of market prices and the details of contracts that American Seafood has with its customers, since much of the product has a customer well before it gets caught.

"Since ships can be out for weeks or months on the ocean, it's important to get information back and forth," Khalighi said.

The company's logistics department in Seattle also needs to know when vessels at sea are close to filling their shipboard cold storage so they can quickly decide what to do with the fish when the ship returns to port.

Some of data is stored in inventory, some on a production system, and eventually gets to a shipment and tracking system. Each boat is equipped with a network based on NT and Microsoft Exchange. Data is forwarded via satellite.

In late 2000, American Seafood started moving to Windows 2000 first by cutting over two servers. The company also sent one employee for extensive training on Active Directory and security before converting one of its servers.

"We wanted to see if there was an advantage of switching to Active Directory," Khalighi said. "It seemed to make sense for us because it can do load balancing, and every server in the forest can be used for authentication."

Khalighi said he would like to see better tools that help customers make it easier to migrate from NT to Windows 2000 and to Active Directory. During the conversion, his team stopped the project halfway through, but continued on thanks only to his employees' own persistence and desire to make the technology work.

Active Directory can be tricky and requires a full knowledge and understanding of the product, he said.

"If you don't know what you're doing, I guarantee that halfway through the conversion you will back off," he said. "We sent people out to learn how to do it."

The engine

With help from Equarius Inc., a Bellevue, Wash.-based integrator, American Seafood has moved some of its data off of a proprietary system and onto BizTalk Server.

American Seafood had developed a core platform in the mid-1990s called Transfer Manager, which functions in a similar way to BizTalk and the extensible markup language (XML) work today, only without the tags used by XML.

Each ship and office is equipped with Transfer Manager, which takes data from the various applications, transfers it via the MAPI protocol to Exchange and forwards the data to its correct destination.

So far, American Seafood has moved one application, the production data from the vessels, off Transfer Manager and onto BizTalk Server.

Since the data running through BizTalk originates on an active fishing vessel, there was no way to run a trial. However, if the BizTalk Server malfunctions, the company's backup plan is to switch the data back to the Transfer Manager, Khalighi said.

Khalighi said Windows 2000, Active Directory and BizTalk don't necessarily help get fish to market faster, but Microsoft's fleet helps American Seafood's IT staff by making it easier to support the company's applications.

"Everything moves more efficiently," he said. "We can spend more time streamlining other systems."

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

Best Web Links on BizTalk

Best Web Links on Active Directory Migration

Ask an expert about Windows 2000 migration


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