CIOs are used to having users scattered to the four winds, but how about having chunks of your IT department floating around on the high seas?

This is just one of the issues that faces Haydon Williams, IT director at Carnival UK. The company operates cruise ships under the Cunard and P&O brands and is part of the larger Carnival group, which comprises eight cruise operating companies and eighty five ships.

His department comprises 75 people in four areas: Services, Infrastructure, Systems and Projects. It looks after the IT requirements of the offices, the ships, remote offices, remote staff and some 750 mobile phones. Because of the international nature of its business, many of the operational departments need to be on call out of office hours.

Williams, who has been with Carnival UK for ten years, says, "the always changing systems and their diversity makes the job interesting, with many challenges as the ships move around the world."

The ships

Carnival UK ships each have their own IT operation and a 1Mbps satellite link to the outside world for all voice and data requirements. Dealing with ever-changing time zones is just one of the more unusual issues that Carnival's IT has to cope with.

Each ship runs 78 applications and provides 30 concurrent fixed and wifi internet access, in-cabin phones, networked interactive televisions, plus a GSM mobile network which provides connectivity (including GPRS) even in the middle of the Atlantic.

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Later ships have wifi in all passenger and crew areas although concurrent sessions still have to be restricted in order to preserve connection quality through the narrow satellite link.

A ship comprises three main departments: Hotel, Technical and Deck all of which are heavily supported by their IT systems. The only bits that don't fall under IT's remit are the navigation and engine control systems. Depending on the size of the ship, the IT department has one or two IT officers as, in Williams' words, "its eyes and hands on board."

The offices

In addition to its ten ships, in 2009 Carnival UK moved into gleaming purpose-built premises near the harbour in Southampton. This accommodates 1200 staff and includes the call centre and the data centre.

The company also operates a number of remote sites, including three cruise terminals in Southampton, four shipyards in Europe, resorts in Crete and Majorca and manning agents in Chiasso and Mumbai. All of these are also supported by the IT department's 250 or so applications. The only external 'cloud' application is the Websense service, which filters out the 90 per cent or so of inbound emails which contain spam or viruses. Because cloud services are so dependent on communications, they are generally unsuited for use on board ship.

The decision to consolidate six separate offices in Southampton into the new headquarters building, gave the company a chance to rethink its operations and introduce a number of innovations. IT was closely involved from the start, three years ago, and a number of work groups were established to enable staff and management to consider every aspect of the new build. One of them, a sustainability group, was formed from staff volunteers.

While the initial motivation for the office move was to reduce costs and improve organisational effectiveness, a side-benefit of many decisions was an improvement to the company's environmental standing. The firm previously occupied old buildings, meaning it had to live within their physical constraints and existing infrastructure.

Individual desk space was reduced, flat screens on poles replaced bulky CRT monitors, saving both energy and space. The call centre went thin client using HP terminals and Citrix, saving power and facilitating support. Some call centre staff work from home, further reducing space requirements and improving staff retention.

Desktop printers and 30 photocopiers were replaced with 36 centrally managed 'follow-me' multi-function devices, combining privacy with the elimination of wasted printouts. The datacentre itself was virtualised and consolidated, reducing 150 servers down to just 15, once again with associated power, management and cost benefits.

These achievements came about partly as a result of advice from Externus, a business advisor that specialises in effective and green IT. Williams had used the firm before when it had helped to implement an IT service and support improvement programme. Williams said, "it looked at the end-to-end IT operation to see how the service was being received by the business."

Since the move, the same company has conducted another assessment but, this time, to help Carnival UK to create a green IT strategy roadmap. The eight week process examined the changes already made and identified further improvements that could be made.

When considering this, Williams was concerned about the potential for cost increases, in particular that, "exposing the carbon footprint of the IT department could lead to carbon-offsetting, which I could not justify from the IT budget."

In fact, the report concluded that a combination of the improvements already brought in and the adoption of new recommendations would deliver a £1.4 million RoI after five years and cut the company's projected IT-related carbon by over half.

Since planning for the new office started, automatic technical refreshes were stopped when practical and flat screen monitors became the standard purchase. Replacements are now made as needed, either due to failure or because of the requirements of a resource-hungry application. Wherever possible, redundant printers and servers are re-used, typically on the ships. But, because these are often at sea and beyond reach, this decision has to be balanced with a need for reliable systems on board. In the office, a dodgy server can be swapped out very easily but this is not the case at sea. New ships and refits are being kitted out with multi-function devices and other new technology. Any equipment that cannot be re-used is sent to a local WEEE-compliant recycling firm.

At the moment, the IT department can support up to 200 concurrent remote users. As mentioned earlier, call centre staff take advantage of this but, during the January 2010 snow when two thirds of the staff couldn't get into work, between 100 and 120 of them could be found working online at any time, not least because almost half of the company PCs are actually laptops. Broader environmental benefits accrue depending on their preferred mode of transport, the distance from the office and their normal daytime energy requirements at home.

When it comes to printing, staff are required to be present at the device in order to initiate the print. Each floor of the office has eight printers and they are, of course, in the cruise terminals as well. Rather than having desktop printers which encourage unnecessary printing, the walk to a printer is a good deterrent. Because colour printing is ten times the cost of black and white, staff are given a colour printing allowance of £50 per person per month. All printers are set to a default of double-sided, black and white and A4. Users need to change the settings if they want something different and they have to put in a request if they want their £50 allowances raised. Because the company uses Equitrac print management software, it is able to monitor what's being printed, where and by whom. All of this adds up to considerable print savings and associated environmental benefits in terms of paper, consumables and energy.

The IT department as a whole accounted for over a third of the office building's carbon emissions and about half of this was required just for cooling the datacentre. It is somewhat larger than needed, since it was designed into the building before virtualisation had even been considered. IT is now considering further energy efficiencies through curtaining and channelling the cold air. Externus is also recommending that the temperature of the datacentre and secondary equipment rooms be raised to 25 to 26 degrees centigrade because modern equipment does not need to run at the more traditional 18 to 20 degrees. All of these measures will lead to a significant drop in energy use.

In terms of office space, the call centre is smaller than it used to be because of the willingness of customers and travel agents to make online bookings. The call centre's thin client approach saves on energy use (which, in turn lowers the demand on the office air conditioning) and reduces the need for maintenance and support. The base units are cheaper and they last longer. Not surprisingly, these will be seen increasingly in other parts of the office.

Although Williams was slightly sceptical about the real benefits of green IT, once he realised the financial benefits, he became altogether more positive. The measures being advocated will not require a lot of project time yet they will deliver further commercial environmental benefits. Or, as Williams put it as we were wrapping up, "IT has saved Carnival UK a ton of money and benefitted the environment into the bargain."