easyJet’s journey into the clouds

Last month, I spent some time at Microsoft’s Partner Business Briefing on Transitioning to the Cloud (#pbbcloud).  To be honest, the Microsoft presentations were pretty dull, the highlight being the sharp glances from Steve Ballmer as he saw me working on my iPad (which led to some interesting comments in a technical session a short while later) but there was one session that grabbed my attention – one where easyJet‘s Bert Craven, an IT architect with the airline, spoke about how cloud computing has changed easyJet’s “real world” IT strategy.

For those who are reading this from outside Europe, easyJet was one of the original UK-based budget airlines and they have grown to become a highly successful operation.  Personally, I don’t fly with them if I can help it (I often find scheduled airlines are competitive, and have higher standards of customer service), but that’s not to say I don’t admire their lean operations – especially when you learn that they run their IT on a budget that equates to 0.75% of their revenue (compared with an average of just over 4%, based on Gartner’s IT Key Metrics).

Bert Craven quipped that, with a budget airline, you might be forgiven for thinking the IT department consists of one guy with a laptop in orange shed, by an airfield, operating a shoestring budget but it’s actually 65 people in a very big orange hangar, by a big runway…

Seriously though, operating a £3billion Internet-driven business on an IT budget which is so much smaller than the norm shows that the company’s reputation for leanness is well-deserved. To deliver enterprise-scale IT with this approach requires focus – a focus on differentiation – i.e. those systems that drive competitive advantage or which define the business.  In order to achieve this, easyJet has taken commodity systems and pushed them “out of the door” – buying as-a-service products with demanding service level agreements (SLAs) from selected business partners.

easyJet has had a cloud strategy since 2005, when they started moving  commodity systems to managed services.  But, in 2009, Windows Azure caused a deviation in that approach…

Until 2007, easyJet was growing at 20% p.a. (the company is still experiencing rapid growth today, but not quite at the same level) – and that high level of growth makes it difficult to scale.  There’s also a focus on meeting the SLAs that the business demands: easyJet are immensely proud that their easyJet.com availability chart is so dull, showing a constant 100% for several years; and if their flight control systems were unavailable for more than four hours, the entire fleet would be grounded (which is why these systems are never “down”).

So easyJet classified their IT systems into three tiers:

  • Commodity: operating system; security; backup; e-mail; access methods; file and print.
  • Airline systems: engineering; crew rostering; finance; personnel; flight planning; schedule planning; baggage handling; payroll; slot management; payment systems.
  • easyJet Systems (those differentiators that drive competitive advantage): reservation system; revenue management; departure control; crew systems; aircraft systems.

easyJet High Level architecture (pre-cloud)The three tiers of classification are used to drive SLAs of silver  (99.9% availability), gold (99.99% availability) and platinum (100% availability), mapped onto the IT architecture such that platinum services operate as a high availability configuration across two sites, gold services can fail over between sites if required, and silver services are provided only from easyJet’s primary site.

Alongside this, easyJet has a 5 point IT strategy that’s designed to be simple and cost-effective:

  1. Use simple, standard, solutions by default.
  2. Promote innovate use of mainstream technology.
  3. Use Microsoft technology for the technical platform.
  4. Provide scalable systems that never restrict the growth of the business.
  5. Provide 100% up-time for business critical systems.

In order to take account the disruption from the adoption of cloud computing technologies, easyJet adapted their strategy:

  1. Use simple, standard, solutions by default: place services in the cloud only when to do so simplifies the solution.
  2. Promote innovate use of mainstream technology: continually test the market to measure capabilities and penetration of cloud technology (as it becomes more mainstream, it’s better suited to easyJet’s innovation).
  3. Use Microsoft technology for the technical platform: Windows Azure will be the natural choice, but look at alternatives too.
  4. Provide scalable systems that never restrict the growth of the business: look for areas where cloud will improve the scalability of systems.
  5. Provide 100% up-time for business critical systems: wait for cloud computing to mature before committing to high availability usage (no platinum apps in cloud).

easyJet High Level architecture (planned cloud)Naturally, easyJet started their journey into cloud computing with commodity computing systems (buying in compute and storage capabilities as a service, outsourcing email to a platform as a service offering, etc.) before they started to push up through the stack to look at airline systems. They thought that silver and gold services would be offered from the cloud within the architecture but Windows Azure turned out to be more disruptive than they anticipated (in a good way…).

With many commodity and airline systems now cloud-hosted, easyJet’s IT systems are able to cope with the company’s rapid growth.  But their departure control system (a platinum service) in 4 airports now has been running on Windows Azure since January 2010 and the easyjet.com sales channel has also been extended into the cloud, so that it may be offered more broadly in innovative ways (or as Bert put it, “when you suddenly expose your sales channel to Facebook, you need to know you can handle Facebook!”).  easyJet High Level architecture (post-cloud)Now easyJet’s high-level architecture has platinum systems crossing primary and secondary sites, as well as the cloud – something that they originally said they wouldn’t do.

Bert Craven explained the crucial point that easyJet missed in their strategy was an aspect that’s often understated: integration as a service.  easyJet believe that the potential of the cloud as an integration platform is huge and they use Windows Azure AppFabric (formerly known as BizTalk Internet Services, then as Microsoft .NET Services).

With a traditional secure service in a data centre, consumers are allowed to punch through the firewall on a given port then, after successfully negotiating security, they can consume the service. AppFabric turns this model inside out, taking the security context and platform into the cloud.  With AppFabric, the service makes an outbound connection through the firewall (security departments like outbound connections) and consumers can locate services and connect in a secure manner within the cloud. AppFabric is not just for web service endpoints either: it can do anything from send a tweet to streaming live video; and endpoints are getting smarter too with rich integration functionality (message routing, store and forward, etc.)

easyJet see AppFabric as a game changer because it’s made them ask different questions:

  • Instead of “is a new service we’re building a  cloud service or an on-premise service?”, the question becomes “might this service have some cloud endpoints and components – is this in fact a hybrid service?”
  • “Could we migrate an existing service to the cloud?” becomes “could we extend an existing service into the cloud?”

Bert Craven believes that AppFabric is the ace in the pack of Windows Azure technologies because it’s a small step to take an existing service and expose some endpoints in the cloud (easy to swallow).  It’s also more  of an enabler than a disruptor, so AppFabric is quite rightly perceived as lower risk (and almost certainly lower cost). Extending a service is a completely different proposition to move entire chunks of compute and storage capabilities to cloud. Consequently there is a different value proposition, making use of existing assets (which means it’s easier to prove a return on investment – delivering more value with a greater return on existing investments by extending them quickly becomes very attractive) – and an IT architect’s job is to create maximum business value from existing investments.

AppFabric offers rich functionality – it’s not just a cheap shortcut to opening firewall and has a rich seam of baked-in integration functionality and, ultimately, it has accelerated easyJet’s acceptance of cloud computing.  18 months ago, Craven describes sharp intakes of breath when talking of running departure control in the cloud, but now that a few airports have been running that way for 10 months, it’s widely accepted that all departure control systems will transition to the cloud.

Bert Craven sees AppFabric as a unifying paradigm – with Windows Azure AppFabric in the cloud and Windows Server AppFabric on-premise (and it gets stronger when looking at some other Microsoft technologies, like the Project Sydney virtual private network and identity federation developments – providing a continuous and unified existence with zero friction as services move from on-premise to cloud and back again as required).

In summing up, Bert Craven described AppFabric as a gateway technology – enabling business models that were simply not possible previously, opening a range of possibilities. Now, when easyJet thinks about value propositions of cloud and cloud solutions, equal thought is given to the cloud as an integration platform, offering a huge amount of value, at relatively low cost and risk.

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