How do you replace an IT system that needs to be operational 24/7?

The TNT European Express Centre in Liège is an impressive building. This is already clear as you approach it on the E42. But it’s only a little later, when you’re inside at the entry of Hall 1 and able to see all the way to the other end of Hall 2, that you come to the true realisation: it’s absolutely enormous. There are 350 m of in-feeds and out-feeds, left for road transport, right for anything travelling by air. Any TNT package destined for anywhere in Europe will pass through this building at any time, day or night.


Here, tens of thousands of packages are automatically sorted based on their destinations. The hardware and software that drives the system dates back to 1998 when TNT first established their European hub. And this hub works 24/7. Being down for a few days is unthinkable, let alone a few weeks. And the replacement of the servers and storage systems became crucially important. A difficult job for the intrion Support department, but one which demonstrates just how incredibly versatile intrion actually is. We spoke with Marc Cardinal, IT System Engineer at TNT Liège.

1) Why did replacement become so urgent?
Marc: ‘It became urgent for two reasons. The maintenance costs had begun to run too high. You need to understand that servers are usually replaced after three years. And software changes quickly; we were having problems with virus updates for the various operating systems. We wanted to have a stable environment once again. One on which we could use new software. Which brings us to the second reason. We will soon be implementing a LEF project, a completely new cross-belt sorting system. With the current upgrade of our hardware and software, we want to be ready for the future.’

2) What was the biggest challenge in this project?
Marc: ‘The tiny maintenance timeframe was a huge challenge. We start here at 10 p.m., with a peak at about midnight. From 11 p.m., the aeroplanes are landing, loaded with packages, and between 4 and 6 a.m. they are due to take off again, loaded with other packages. We need to sort everything in just a few hours. It’s vital that nothing goes wrong. For two years, we have also had reasonably busy activities during the day, especially with flights from Asia. They start at 9 a.m. So this gives us three hours for maintenance. And in the evening we also have a few hours, but only a few hours. It’s a nightmare if you need to make such a radical change. Because closing down is simply not an option.’

3) What exactly did you do? 
Marc: ‘First we gave our old database software an upgrade with better security and more redundancy. We then migrated this software to a new server with modern VMware infrastructure (VM stands for Virtual Machine and allows multiple operating systems to run in conjunction with each other). Afterwards, the database itself had a turn. This was the difficult part because it was full of links to TNT World. We could only migrate tiny parts at once due to the limited maintenance timeframe. Every change was thoroughly tested before and had to be approved before the 10 p.m. deadline. Despite the difficulties, the change ran flawlessly.’

4) The new system is what’s known as a disaster recovery solution. Could you explain what this is?
Marc: ‘Between 90 and 95 % of what TNT does is for the B2B sector. Companies want their packages delivered within 24 hours. If something goes wrong? T here needs to be a Plan B. This are the guidelines set by TNT World. At any moment, there needs to be a back-up of the database available; if a server drops out, the reserve server needs to start up immediately. And since we are at an airport here, the double storage system is set up in two different buildings. This way, supposing an aircraft crashed into one of the two buildings, all the data needed for processing thousands of packages would still be available on the other storage system.’

5) Why did TNT choose intrion?
Marc: ‘I’ve known intrion since I started here 18 years ago. We have always had good contact and a good working relationship. We can talk on the same level, technician to technician, engineer to engineer. They understand what we want and we get what we want. If something does go wrong, we can always discuss it openly with them. So we worked together once again for this project. And we will be for the second half, the LEF Project, too.’

6) What are the plans for the future? 
Marc: ‘At the moment, the application is up and running for the new LEF project. The migration of the database and software on the new hardware is completely ready for the old building (Hall 1). In the new building (Hall 2), intrion is currently installing a new sorting machine. But there is also a lot to be replaced in Hall 1, all of which needs to be done without the installation shutting down. Both buildings will be linked. The start of that is planned for the beginning of 2016.’


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‘It’s a pleasure to work together with intrion.’
‘We work here, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It’s typical for the express delivery sector. Every day, we need to deliver tens of thousands of packages and documents. That poses a big problem when it comes to maintenance, replacement parts, rebooting or replacing an entire system. What we have done here with intrion is exceptional.’

 


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About TNT
TNT is a major player in the worldwide express services market. The company transports your goods and documents all over the world based on your needs. The focus here is on time- and day-specific pick up and delivery. On 27 April 1998, TNT opened its European Express Centre (EEC) at the Liège airport. The hub processes all air freight sent within Europe and provides a link with the rest of the world.