Inchcape Shipping Services sets sail with microservices

Profile picture for user Mark Chillingworth By Mark Chillingworth October 1, 2020
Tech leader of global shipping organisation reveals how a new data-led rigging will provide a safe harbour for growth.

Image of a ship at sea
(Image by Valentin Schönpos from Pixabay)

It is a three-year journey to modernise and transform the organisation, and the key focus is that the legacy estate has reached its limits.

Andy Ashwell, Group Information Officer at Inchcape Shipping Services, is leading to the digitisation of the essential roles that get goods and passengers on-board and keep the world's merchant navy at sea. As data becomes the wind in the sails of shipping, Inchcape Shipping Services has charted a course that modernises services it has offered since 1847, and developed a series of data products that will deliver the same level of connected business seen in airlines, retail and financial services.

When a ship arrives into port, Inchcape Shipping Services facilitate everything the ship requires from customs, the berth, fuel, and cargo loading on behalf of the ship owners. Clients include major oil firms and cruise lines; two industries that have been hard hit by the pandemic.

As an industry, it is very old, and we are one of only three global shipping agents.

For our global customers, we are already doing a lot more for them in terms of traditional cost optimisation, delay elimination, and we are seeing that they are far more data-driven.

Inchcape Shipping Services has three core offerings, port and marine services, and then two information-centric arms, which provide market, operating and port intelligence, and a set of financial services for shipping transactions and foreign exchange.

As shipping firms are increasing their data usage, Inchcape Shipping Services saw that its current technology estate needed to meet these needs, and that its existing diverse and global business could be radically enhanced by greater use of technology.

There is a big focus on the use of technology in shipping at present for things like just-in-time berthing, vessel arrival and environmental issues. For example, if we see that a berth at Rotterdam is becoming available, we are able to inform a customer and the ship can accelerate to take that berth. Measurements of the turn-arounds and port costs is a high priority, and for Inchcape that information all hinges on our network of agents across the world, we are one of the few shipping agents with a global list of berths. So data is going to be our future and our customers see this.

That global reach is the wave that Inchcape is riding to secure its mooring as the digital leader in shipping. Ashwell explains that Inchcape can physically and digitally offer a standardised and consistent service to its shipping customers.

We needed to standardise, optimise and further exploit our global network so that our customers use its full extent.

In technology that has meant we need to address the fact that our legacy estate was costly to maintain and too slow to change.

Inchcape standardised not only the services the customer uses, but has also anchored its business operations to a set of common processes.

The port agencies have traditionally been a series of localised businesses, so had local instances of file management, printing, telephony and some local applications. Today we have migrated all agents onto a single global Microsoft Office365, Sharepoint and Onedrive environment, as well as a global unified communications platform and a series of global applications hosted on AWS.

Complex rigging

The central course of standardising the processes was the need to preserve the value of the local agents, as Ashwell explains local representation and service delivery is key to the Inchcape business.

It is a complex business with many different combinations of services provided to a vessel, based on its type, for example, the needs of a cruise ship and a tanker are vastly different. That service then needs to be reported on to the shipowner, the business that chartered the ship, ship management business and finally the firms that supply the crews. So the modernisation agenda was huge.

The keel to the digital services is a microservices architecture, which connects Inchcape Shipping Services data with the enterprise resource planning (ERP) platforms of the clients.

To accelerate the digital modernisation of the business Inchcape partnered with OutSystems to supplement the adoption of a microservices architecture. This led to a new OneDA system being launched that optimised local operations, including the costs incurred when the vessel is on a port visit.

What we have done is modernise the technology estate in 68 nations without having to build on top of our legacy technology. We are building a new ecosystem.

Microsystems, partners OutSystems and our Enterprise Service Bus allows us to build through transparency, as all of the information is available, in real-time, and it auto-populates into the customer's systems or is available as a web portals, Optic and World of Ports, two subscription services. With that transparency, we can then work with the customer on some real optimisation.

Ashwell explains that the long history of port agencies is the opposite of the digital economy, it was built on a heritage of distrust, but the CIO believes that transparency through data will be a fresh sea breeze through the industry and its myths and legends. World of Ports began as a Marine Assurance industry tool, providing details of berth dimensions, channel depth, maximum vessel heights and port facilities for 4,600 ports and 15,000 terminals, each with geographic information system (GIS) data.

Getting the transformation afloat

The OneDA first set sail in Kuwait, allowing Inchcape to iterate from this deck.

It is important to be able to iterate locally, as there are local taxes for example, but the OutSystems platform allows development to take place at pace.

Ashwell says Kuwait was chosen as the first voyage for the platform, as it has the right volume and number of services offered, so gave Inchcape a good understanding of how the platform would perform in different ports and markets.

As the OutSystems platform docks with more Inchcape agents, the legacy technology estate is being decommissioned, with the savings then fed back into self-funding the transformation. The OutSystems platform sits on top of a Dell Boomi enterprise service bus (ESB). Ashwell describes the two as acting as a DevOps platform for the business, ensuring IT doesn't have to spin up new environments, and benefiting from component reuse. Eradicating local infrastructure means the only concern for the port agents is the ability to connect to the internet.