SPONSORED - Earlier this year, the waterway connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea through the Isthmus of Suez was rudely obstructed by a colossal ship carrying 18,500 containers bound for European ports.
The “Ever Given” incident threw a stark spotlight on the world of shipping; a sector that has for a long time remained distinctly immune to the digital transformation happening in industries elsewhere.
But those tracking the sector will have noticed that the shipping world’s bottlenecks are not just physical ones: the industry remains rife with pre-digital processes; old-fashioned paperwork, or at best Excel.
Among the startups trying to unblock the shipping industry’s digital conduits is Ankeri: an Iceland-based startup that provides a cloud-based software platform for ship owners and charterers to collaborate.
Ankeri’s big idea: provide a single hub for both ship owners and ship chartering teams to review fleet utilization, performance, handle ship information and chartering questionnaires, benchmark ship performance, charter parties’ consumption warranties, select the optimal vessels for certain trades, and much more.
As co-founder and CEO Kristinn Aspelund puts it to The Stack: “Some 90% of all goods are carried by around 50,000 ships worldwide. Even though it's the most environmentally friendly means of transportation, it's still a significant polluter; something like 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
"And when shipping companies are selecting vessels, they are not typically utilising all the information that's possible to gain from the operations of these vessels, because they're using quite manual processes for it."
“We wanted to build a digital platform where we could take advantage of the data and the knowledge that is available on these ships to really help them optimize these processes – and that can help not just financial but environmental sustainability. We started with static data on the particulars of the world’s vessels, terminals, and trade; and now we’re transforming operational data too: capturing data from the vessels themselves.”
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To make these services work, Ankeri needs to pull significant amounts of data from different sources, normalise it and make it available to customers in a seamless manner, while handling the scale the startup had in mind.
It also needed to be resilient and cloud-native – with an Ankeri team led by Vice President of Engineering Nanna Einarsdóttir ultimately settling on Apache Cassandra for its core database.
As she tells The Stack: “Most of us had previous experience with working with real-time data, so we were well aware that relational databases and a monolithic system weren't going to cut it.
“Also, there were just five of us in the company: we wanted to really utilise our resources for development; not setting up clouds and servers or maintenance of them. We’d actually started with DynamoDB which is very powerful, but the learning curve was steep, and the unfamiliarity with a single table design was challenging. Every change you make is going to modify your current design instead of just adding a new table like you do in Cassandra. It was really slowing our development down, having to go back to the drawing board all the time.
“So we approached DataStax and got a really nice, active response from them.”
Ankeri turns to DataStax for a serverless DBaaS
DataStax – a US-based company that delivers an open data stack for modern data applications including the industry’s only open, multi-cloud serverless database: DataStax Astra DB – now operates Ankeri's data collection hub as a managed Cassandra service on serverless Astra, while its app functions run on AWS Lambda.
As Nanna Einarsdóttir explains: “A fleet might consist of ships from different ship owners and you can expect there to be many different onboard systems. So if you're running a fleet, you might have to talk to 20 different data APIs to get all the data for your fleet. We want to create a single source of data for your fleet, no matter what systems are on board. So we utilise Lambda functions in AWS to gather data from all the required source API's, consolidate the data, we make sure it's all saved with the same unit and name – i.e. if it’s GPS speed we make sure it’s called GPS speed from all of them! – and after it’s been synchronised we save it to DataStax Astra and then make it available through our single API for our user base.
“The flexibility DataStax offers is really important, because data governance is a big issue: ships can be rented for two years or three months, etc. The ownership of the data stream is going to be constantly changing. So the ability to manage who has what data is very important in all of this. We started with Astra last year and it was everything we needed. Cassandra, without having to manage it, and with good guard rails.
DataStax Astra DB provides serverless Database as a Service, built on Apache Cassandra with automated management and scaling based on application demands.
Alongside Astra DB, Ankeri is making use of Storage Attached Indexing to simplify how it manages data over time. Storage Attached Indexing, or SAI, lets users index multiple columns on the same table without scaling issues. It helps optimize storage and simplifies search without affecting performance.
"We planned to have a lot of columns within our database implementation in order to capture all the data that each ship provides, but this could impact performance whenever search operations would be carried out. The DataStax team took us through SAI, how it could provide a simpler index for us to use, and how it could reduce storage volumes required too," Einarsdóttir explained. "Alongside being able to run on Astra Serverless, SAI makes it a lot easier to operate."