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No time for downtime

No time for downtime

When your systems are handling potentially life-threatening situations you can't have enough redundancy.

If your car breaks down and you need roadside assistance, it is highly likely that you will be unknowingly calling First Assistance. The same goes for when you need to organise travel insurance or if you need to lodge a property claim. From its Auckland office, this service provider powers many of the corporate telephone helplines both in New Zealand and overseas. This means that the company’s IT and telecommunication systems need to be up and running 24 hours a day, seven days per week. The company receives up to 400,000 calls and manages over 300,000 cases every year, all in its business customer’s name.

To prevent outages, First Assistance relies on “a lot of redundancy”, as IT manager Richard Presling explains. The company also ensures that, if downtime is ever necessary, it is scheduled for Sunday mornings, the only time when all timezones are least affected.

Presling and his team of three people make up the entirety of First Assistance’s Auckland-based IT department and they ensure that systems remain up no matter what time of the day or night.

There are mirrored servers and backups of backups that ensure the systems are always up. The company also works with Plan-b on backups and disaster recovery plans, as well as having its own plan in place, with multiple UPSes and diesel generators in the office.

“We also have two telephone systems,” says Presling. “The main one, deployed by Interactive Intelligence, and a second one which comes on if the first system gets cut off.” On top of that, there is also redundancy on those two and a third, more basic telephone system to be used in case all else fails.

The company also works with three different telecommunications providers (Telecom, TelstraClear and Orcon) to ensure that, if one of them suffers an outage, another one can be used.

“No one will tolerate any downtime. We need duplicates of every server,” explains Presling. “Our biggest challenge is avoiding having an outage when someone is trying to get in touch with us because they are in a life threatening situation.”

The company is segmented into national and international operations and is currently moving away from a 13-year old legacy system.

The international operation, which is responsible for, for example, taking a call from a distressed traveller overseas, now runs on Microsoft Dynamics CRM.

The national operations will remain with the old system, inContact, for another year, before moving onto the Dynamics CRM as well. Working with and on behalf of a wide myriad of clients means that First Assistance deals with several types of policies. The new CRM includes what they have called a “decision tree”, which ensures that they are quoting the right information to each particular customer.

“Our problem was that we had about 400 sets of policy wording and it used to take a long time to get people up to speed with those. Now the CRM lays out the way the case should be handled,” says Presling. n Vera Alves

Councils head to the cloud

Forty eight small and medium councils across New Zealand are using their collective purchasing power in accessing virtualisation and cloud-based apps.

The councils are members of the Association of Local Government Information Management (ALGIM), which has renewed its contract with VMware and Datastor for the flexible licensing programme.

The contract was signed in 2008 as part of a three-year deal to provide 42 local councils in New Zealand with software enabling their IT departments to adopt a cloud model. “This is a very important contract as it allows local councils, especially small to medium, to purchase significant software at very reasonable pricing,” says Mike Wanden, ALGIM president.

Tim Dacombe-Bird, VMware manager, New Zealand, says the agreement means the councils do not need to have to go “big bang” in the cloud environment with the pay-per-use model. “They can build incrementally at a rate their maturity allows.”

Without the agreement, the councils would have purchased the software individually rather than through aggregated purchasing, says Dacombe-Bird. Divina Paredes

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