BA builds SOA for the long haul

From next month British Airways (BA) will begin rolling out a service-oriented architecture that will eventually enable it to migrate from its 40-year-old mainframe system built on IBM's transaction processing facility (TPF).

From next month British Airways (BA) will begin rolling out a service-oriented architecture that will eventually enable it to migrate from its 40-year-old mainframe system built on IBM's transaction processing facility (TPF).

The IBM system, which dates back to when the airline took delivery of its first Boeing 747 plane, supports back-office processes such as departure control and passenger check-in. However, support for the TPF 4.1 ends at the end of the year.

For the last three years the airline has been building a replacement architecture based on a reference design. Through the reference design BA hopes to deploy new multi-channel applications, share information with business partners and airport operators quickly and cost effectively.

Airlines drive IT change

The Boeing 747 changed the dynamics of the airline industry. In 1972 BA adapted to the mass market for air travel with the 747 offering real-time computer control systems. Gordon Penfold, CTO at British Airways, says the new Airbus A380 and Boeing 787 will have an equally profound effect. "They will bring as great a discontinuity to IT as the 747 in the 1970s."

Speaking to Computer Weekly, he said, "These aircraft are e-enabled, which means they provide us with telemetry data, which allows us to perform far richer maintenance planning."

For instance, he said, during a long flight, the aircraft could signal that a repair would be required. This information is fed directly into BA's SAP maintenance, repair and operations system. By the time it landed BA would have the part and engineers to make the repairs, which means the aircraft could be turned around quickly and returned to service.

This is one example of how IT is supporting where BA wants to take the business. Penfold said, "IT fulfils a business process to achieve a promise we make to the customer."

BA builds on Progress

The new architecture is built on a service-oriented architecture using Progress Software's Sonic ESB, Progress Actional SOA Management and Progress DataXtend Semantic Integrator (SI). SonicESB is an enterprise service bus, which forms the basis for the architecture, by providing a standard way to integrate applications. Through SonicESB, SOA components exchange data and electronic messages to automate business processes.

Penfold said BA was half way through implementing the SOA. When it is completed, it will integrate 600 electronic systems and processes at BA.

Thanks to the SOA, the website is built on a suite of business components like flight selling, servicing and payment. Penfold said some of these components can be exposed as services, which can then be displayed on flight comparison sites.

Ash and other disruptions

Penfold admitted that when the Icelandic ash hit, he was helping in the call centre. Disruptions are a way of life for airlines and IT is integral to keeping passengers moving.

"Our proposition for business is about availability. The ash cloud earlier in the year was the most visible example of this. But the recent French air traffic control (ATC) industrial action also demonstrated that information is key to maintaining flight schedules. Every time there is an ATC stoppage we need to do a lot of rerouting [of flights]."

In the financial markets, investment banks and regulators often use software like Progress' Apama to run complex event processing (CEP), which allows them to analyse events in real time based on historical information. Penfold said CEP at BA was a few years away, but the type of analysis offered by its SOA allows for a simpler form of event processing.

The SOA is essential to helping the company tackle disruptions. Penfold said, "By deploying a reference architecture we can better understand joins in our business processes which means we can recognise and react quickly, by detecting combinations of events."

He said thanks to the enterprise service bus provided through SonicESB BA's IT can respond to events." It is possible, for instance, for aircraft to monitor weather conditions in the upper atmosphere, like the transatlantic jetstream, which is then fed back into the flight planing process.


Flying in the cloud

BA is in the process of deploying its enterprise service bus infrastructure. Penfold said messaging has been in production for six months and BA is now readying its first applications built on the new architecture. These include payment services available via its OpenSkies personalised travel service, arrivals and departures information and crew management.

While BA deploys its enterprise service bus and service-oriented architecture that need to last another 40 years, IT has moved on and the industry is now pushing cloud computing. Penfold looks beyond the hype. He regards cloud as an extension of virtualisation and commoditisation of hardware.

Because of concerns about privacy, running BA's IT on a public cloud is certainly not on the horizon, but he does see some opportunities where BA could eventually use private cloud.

In many ways, the BA SOA is itself a form of internal cloud service, allowing the airline and its joint venture partners to share data and collaborate. For instance, since American Airlines (AA) also runs a service-oriented architecture, BA can extract information from the AA systems, which means it can provide passengers with details of flight itineraries that include an AA flight. BA can effectively route passenger queries through the AA system, which improves the customer experience.

"The benefits of adopting SOA is that it has allowed us to convert a legacy renewal project into a business opportunity."

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