Internet Connections on the High Seas

When you think of cruise ships, you’re most likely to think of the food, on-board entertainment, food, swim deck, and food. But for the clients who sail the Crystal Cruise luxury line, a fast Internet connection is near the top of their list of requirements.

That’s because Crystal Cruises doesn’t operate your run-of-the-mill five-day, four-night Bahama runs. Rather, the largely affluent passengers who travel on its six-star Symphony or Serenity lines are in it for a longer haul. Trips average between 10 days and two weeks, or you can see the world — and take college-level continuing education courses at the computer university on the ships — in 108 days. When you’re looking at an extended stay on the high seas, having a fast Internet connection becomes pretty important.

“Our clientele is slightly different,” says Bjorn Andersson, manager of shipboard and network operations. “A common scenario is people are involved in the stock trading business and they need to pretty much be available to do trades at any time, and they spend a lot of time online. When people go out and stay for the most part of the year, when you are out there for such an extended period of time, you rely on these tools just as you do at home, to pay bills, do stock trades, or what have you.”

That created an unusual business-technology alignment challenge for the cruise operator, which has to rely on satellite communications, where there’s a 500-600 millisecond delay just to get up to the satellite and down — not an attractive proposition for people used to broadband connections. And, with the introduction of WiFi to its cruise ships, the load significantly increased, as more passengers took advantage of wirelessly using the Internet and stayed on longer.

“We were definitely constantly asked by the guests, can we make this faster. ‘If I can’t have reliable, fast Internet access I won’t be able to go on the cruise because I have to stay up on stocks and continue trading,’” Andersson says.

For Crystal Cruises, it was a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is core to its driving mandate of surpassing its guests’ expectations — and the competition — on every level, from food, to service, to Internet access. The opportunity is to increase revenue from its Internet service. Guests pay based on how much time they spend online — and a faster Internet connection means that they are more apt to do more things online once they take care of their must-do activities.

“You get things done quicker, but because it is a pleasant experience, you also will do other things,” Andersson says.

So, the cruise line operator needed a way to make the experience better and faster for guests.

“As the traffic was going up, we could continue to add more horsepower, but we couldn’t make the experience faster,” he says, noting that they tried increasing bandwidth, tinkering with quality of service parameters, and so on. “We could ‘feed the beast,’ so far as bandwidth consumption goes, but we were not able to deliver an improved experience because of the inherent delay in satellite traffic,” he says.

That’s when Crystal Cruises gave F5 Network’s WebAccelerator web application delivery product a go in the summer.

“The performance increased drastically on board the ships since we implemented the F5,” Andersson says. “We were spiking 2 to 3 hours a day to top speeds of 710/664 Kbit/s, 18 to 27 days per month, before we started the F5 implementation. Using the same satellite connection in August/September, when the upgrades were complete, we were spiking approximately 12 to 13 hours a day, 2000-3000Kbit/s, 30 days a month.”

By decreasing page download times, WebAccelerator offloads servers, decreases bandwidth usage, and ensures the productivity of application end users, according to F5.

Another advantage for Crystal is that the WebAccelerator requires only one box in corporate headquarters — no equipment is needed on board either ship. It’s a plus not to have to worry about a problem that would require a replacement to be shipped to a ship, considering that a vessel could be in the Antarctic and days away from the nearest post office when an event occurs.

Shipboard personnel benefit, too, in terms of better connections to corporate applications, such as doing on-board bookings for repeat cruisers.

“We have lots of central applications in the office, that get loaded over and over again, so clearly that would increase the performance of that,” Andersson says. “This wasn’t the primary purpose for doing this, but it was a pleasant side effect.”

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