Lessons from the SOA high flyers

Airlines are at the vanguard of the move towards service orientated architecture. What can other businesses learn from their use of these technologies?

Last month Scandinavian airline SAS revealed how it was implementing Tibco's enterprise service bus software to link its legacy IT systems. The project aims to give the airline a competitive advantage by helping it bring applications to market more rapidly.

The firm is not alone. AirFrance KLM, British Airways, Delta and Korea Airlines are engaged in similar projects with suppliers such as BEA and IBM. Their work will provide valuable lessons for IT managers in other sectors looking at these technologies.

The concepts behind SOA are not new, said David Bradshaw, principal analyst at Ovum. "SOA is not a radical departure, but the continuation of something that has been going on for a long time," he said. In the past, firms had to create bespoke software to link each application individually. Now they can link applications more easily, using off-the-shelf technology based on open standards.

AirFrance KLM is adopting Tibco's enterprise service bus to help it comply with SOA standards and aid integration with external IT systems. However, it has been using SOA-like concepts for the past decade. The initial aim was to create real-time dialogue between applications. In the past, this was essentially a technical task, using bespoke in-house middleware as an enterprise bus to manage messages between applications.

Now, said Jean Christophe Lalanne, director of strategy service, architecture and corporate technology at AirFrance, the airline can use its experience to ease the integration of applications following its merger with KLM. Using technology based on open standards, it can do this without having to rewrite code or create one-to-one application interfaces.

"As we got closer to KLM, it was impossible to envisage using an in-house architecture, however effective, as we are going to share 70% of our information systems. The package nature of SOA lets us concentrate on the business aspects of the projects, while we can delegate the 'plumbing' to specialist software houses," said Lalanne.

The main business driver for these application integration projects is the need to become more responsive to flight delays caused by changes in the weather and other unforeseen events, and to minimise the knock-on effects of delays.

In the case of Delta Airlines, Tibco software automates data sharing among its many databases and applications. When information about a weather-related delay enters the Delta system, data passes to the scheduling system and adjusts departure times for affected flights.

Data is also displayed at arrival gates, where airline staff use instrument panels to track information and manage events in real time. The system sends information to other airports, where staff can re-book missed connections in advance, improving customer service.

Another driver for SOA in airlines has been competition from budget airlines and the push to do more business online. BA has created a standards-based architecture for developing, integrating, securing and managing its distributed Java-based system as part of a £30m transformation programme to make ba.com a central distribution channel.

The airline is using BEA Weblogic Server to co-ordinate multiple back-end systems and related web portals. These include the Amadeus global airline reservation system, the products and fare types offered by BA, multiple customer databases, and kiosk/desk-based check-in systems. Although not explicitly an SOA project, it relies on some of the same technologies.

Despite the success of SOA-style technologies in the airline industry, SOA is not a panacea, said Bradshaw. "There is still a lot of difficult work to do," he said.

Because different applications define their data in various ways, a major sticking point for large SOA projects is agreeing definitions. "For example, if you are gathering data for the purpose of customer relationship management, what is a customer? Someone who visits your website? Books a flight? Pays a bill? Each application might have a different definition. SOA technology does not solve that problem," said Bradshaw.

Although SOA has become an accepted method of linking existing applications to lower the cost or improve performance, Bradshaw said it had yet to prove its ability to enable business process re-engineering, as some suppliers suggest it can.

"The second stage of SOA is to give you flexibility about how you configure business processes because reconfiguring applications is relatively painless," he said. However, Bradshaw warned that this application of SOA was still in its early stages and it was too early to say how applicable the technology was to this problem.

Service orientated architecture >>

SOA toolbox >>

Scandinavian airline SAS >>

British Airways: information >>

Delta Airlines >>

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