easyJet, a leading European low-fare airline, is all about low costs and great service. The airline wanted to unleash its airport service agents from their desks so they could better serve customers from handheld computers, but it could not find a secure way to open up its core business systems to wireless devices. easyJet used Windows Azure Service Bus, a developer service, to create a highly secure mobile service–delivery platform called Halo, which service agents and customers can use to access easyJet business systems from a range of portable devices. The airline hopes to greatly reduce its reliance on airport infrastructure, which will save millions of pounds annually. Also, by hosting its communications services in Microsoft data centers, easyJet benefits from massive scalability and a flexible development environment conducive to low-cost innovation.
easyJet is Europe’s leading low-fare airline, flying more of Europe’s top 100 routes than any other airline. Founded in 1995, easyJet pioneered the use of the Internet for booking travel and today is the United Kingdom’s largest airline, with 50 million passengers, 550 routes, and 196 aircraft in 30 countries. easyJet is based in Luton, England, and has approximately 7,000 employees.
||The fantastic thing about Windows Azure Service Bus is that I was able to create something single-handedly that was proof enough for management to proceed with the idea.
Enterprise Architect, easyJet
easyJet rose to prominence on low costs and great service. The airline has been a lean organization from the start, squeezing an average of six flights a day out of each aircraft and boasting Internet booking rates of 98.5 percent. To keep costs low, easyJet outsources its entire IT infrastructure and maintains a lean IT staff—just 65 people, or one percent of the company. It also runs all core business systems on Microsoft software, which it has found more cost-effective than the UNIX-based systems that many other airlines use.
However, easyJet has been weighed down by the airport rental fees for Common Use Terminal Equipment (CUTE), which is used and shared by all airlines to check in passengers and issue boarding passes. “We fly to more than 130 airports in Europe and pay millions of pounds annually to rent service desks and these antiquated, hugely expensive VT-100 terminals,” says Bert Craven, Enterprise Architect at easyJet.
Not only that, but the CUTE infrastructure is very difficult to scale to the fluctuating needs of the travel industry. “We have to tell airports months in advance how many desks we need to handle passenger load,” Craven says. “It’s a real capacity-planning challenge.”
The CUTE terminals not only are expensive and inconvenient to rent, but also anchor easyJet service agents behind desks, which is not always the best place to serve customers. Desks in airports tend to be single-function, meaning that agents typically cannot take a payment at a check-in desk or process a check-in at a sales desk. “The check-in experience is one of few opportunities in the airport to have a face-to-face interaction with our customers, and we want it to be positive,” says Craven. “But most people have less than pleasant airport experiences. They stand in long lines, often to discover that they are in the wrong line and have to move to another. We wanted to move services away from traditional desk bottlenecks and proactively manage customers as they move through the airport.”
The vision was to have easyJet agents roaming around check-in areas with mobile devices. While passengers could still drop bags at traditional fixed locations, they could also look for agents wearing bright orange easyJet shirts who would check them in if they hadn’t already checked in on the Internet, print their boarding passes, check and tag their bags, and move them right to security without having to wait in a single line. Agents could even book a rental car for passengers or provide other services from the handheld device.
The technical challenge to making this vision a reality was how to securely open up easyJet back-end business systems to mobile devices. “The idea of serving customers from mobile devices has been around for a long time,” Craven says. “CUTE terminals run over hard-wired lines to our data center, so the connection is very secure. Exposing our core operational systems to mobile devices was a big risk.”
easyJet sat on its mobile airport service idea for years, unable to find a way around the security roadblock. Even prototyping a single device would require exposing interfaces to the company’s core reservation, customer management, billing, and other critical business applications, and the risk was just too great.
|The easyJet Halo platform uses Windows Azure Service Bus to provide encrypted,|
flexible, two-way communication between easyJet agents using handheld devices
and the company’s core business systems.
Good news came in 2008, when easyJet learned of the Windows Azure platform, a cloud services platform that provides on-demand compute, storage, bandwidth, content delivery, middleware, and marketplace capabilities to build, host, and scale web applications through Microsoft data centers.
Windows Azure provides a comprehensive cloud middleware platform for developing, deploying, and managing applications on the Windows Azure platform. It delivers additional developer productivity by providing Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) capabilities on top of the familiar Windows Azure application model. It also enables existing applications to connect to the cloud by providing highly secure connections across network and geographic boundaries and a consistent development model for both Windows Azure and Windows Server.
Windows Azure Caching provides Windows Azure applications with distributed, in-memory, application caching for high-speed access, scale, and availability for needed data.
The Windows Azure technology that really caught Craven’s eye was Windows Azure Service Bus, an Internet-scale enterprise service bus that makes it easy to connect applications over the Internet. Services that register on the Windows Azure Service Bus can easily be discovered and accessed across any network topology.
Service Aggregation in the Cloud
“Windows Azure Service Bus was a small but very critical piece of the puzzle for us,” Craven says. “It’s what enabled us to move forward with the whole mobile service–delivery platform idea. It gave us a way to make our back-end, on-premises services available publicly but in a secure and flexible way.”
||We wanted to move services away from traditional desk bottlenecks and proactively manage customers as they move through the airport.
Enterprise Architect, easyJet
Instead of exposing endpoints in the easyJet data center, easyJet can expose services in the Microsoft cloud where anyone can consume them. “The address for the service is in the cloud and stays the same regardless of which data center I provision it from,” Craven explains. “We don’t have to build a new high-availability service platform, make firewall configuration changes, or deploy lots of new servers. From the service consumer’s point of view, there’s no difference in how they get to that service.”
Mobile Service–Delivery Platform
Using Windows Azure Service Bus, easyJet created Halo, a mobile service–delivery platform. Halo overlays the airline’s European airports with a secure, private communications network and local wireless endpoints. Wireless handheld devices access the communications network in a managed device layer. Halo services are exposed through Service Bus to access back-end applications such as boarding, sales, customer relationship management (CRM), and others. Eventually, Halo will also accommodate portable computers, kiosks, and any other devices that can help easyJet serve customers better.
easyJet uses another Windows Azure developer service, Windows Azure Access Control, to provide authorization services. “Windows Azure Access Control provides easyJet with a rich, federated security model based on open standards, which is critical,” Craven says.
The airline piloted Halo at select airports in early 2010, giving ground airport staff access to applications that support aircraft boarding and payment. The next phase gave agents additional functionality, including flight check-in, seat booking, ticket purchases, and other special services. “Ultimately, we’re aiming for a full suite of operational, retail, and CRM applications,” Craven says.
Straightforward, Out-of-the-Box Development
easyJet was able to use its existing investments in on-premises technology, software, and skills in creating Halo. “It was very easy for our developers to come up to speed on Windows Azure Service Bus,” Craven says. “They still write .NET code in the Visual Studio development system. The jump from consuming normal .NET services was incredibly straightforward. We had to do little more than change a configuration file to expose our services in Windows Azure. With Service Bus, we’ve been able to deliver features that previously would have required reams of code. It gave us extensive out-of-the-box functionality that enabled us to get new services to market before our competitors, using familiar development tools.”
When Halo is rolled out across the 130-plus airports where easyJet operates, the airline anticipates saving millions of pounds annually in CUTE rental fees. easyJet also anticipates giving customers a better airport experience by eliminating or reducing the time spent standing in lines. easyJet has a flexible, affordable development environment in which to incubate new ideas, quickly build prototypes, and inexpensively host production solutions. Hosting the service communications layer in Microsoft data centers gives easyJet boundless scalability and the highest levels of data safety and availability.
Significant Anticipated Savings
With easyJet airport agents outfitted with handheld devices, easyJet hopes to greatly reduce airport desk/CUTE rental fees. “Divesting ourselves of airport CUTE rental fees could amount to multi-million-pound savings annually,” Craven says.
Improved Customer Service
easyJet can give customers faster service and a better airport experience by eliminating many of the lines they currently have to wait in or the frustration of waiting in the wrong line. Agents can meet customers as they walk into the airport and tell them, “You don’t need to check that bag; I’ll check you in now, and you can proceed to the gate.”
|easyJet envisions an airport where use of desks is reduced in favor of more flexible |
roving service agents who greet passengers, check bags, process purchases, issue
boarding passes, and more, using wireless handheld devices.
“A roaming agent can triage questions a lot faster than an agent stuck behind a desk,” Craven says. “Plus, we’ll be able to offer customers new services at the gate, such as help booking rental cars or finding hotels. And we’ll be able to offer much more personalized service, because we will be surfacing our CRM system through the handheld devices. Agents will be able to see which services customers used in the past and target up-sells more efficiently. Without linkage to these back-end systems, it’s much more of a cold call that usually goes nowhere. But when we understand our customer’s needs, we can be very specific and personal in meeting them.”
Freedom from the CUTE system gives easyJet much greater flexibility in how, when, and where it processes passengers. ”Halo has helped us improve our on-time performance, reduce operational errors, and will be of huge benefit during periods of disruption such as recent bouts with snow and volcanic ash, where traditional resources were placed under unbearable strain,” Craven says. “We also have improved revenue opportunities, as we can now take payments on the go.”
Faster Innovation from Lower Costs
Using Windows Azure Service Bus and Access Control, easyJet was able to reduce development costs and speed delivery of Halo.
||Windows Azure becomes an extension of our on-premises environment and gives developers a unified experience, because it’s an extension of what they already know.
Enterprise Architect, easyJet
Craven single-handedly got the first Service Bus service running on a mobile device in half a day. He created an entire demo, complete with user interface running on a mobile device, in just two weeks.
More important than the development savings was the fact that easyJet was able to move forward with its idea at all. “Without Windows Azure Service Bus, there’s a good chance that this project simply would not have gotten off the ground,” Craven says. “It would have cost way too much just to get to the prototype stage. The fantastic thing about Service Bus is that I was able to create something single-handedly that was proof enough for management to proceed with the idea.”
Craven further says that the smooth interoperation between the Windows Azure platform and the airline’s traditional on-premises development environment and infrastructure contributes hugely to development savings. “The software-plus-services concept that Microsoft is promoting is just right for us,” Craven says. “Windows Azure becomes an extension of our on-premises environment and gives developers a unified experience, because it’s an extension of what they already know. It’s a low-cost ’sandbox’ in which we can cost-effectively incubate new ideas. The moment the competition catches up, we want to innovate again.”
With the Windows Azure platform, easyJet also has the ability to scale its IT infrastructure to keep pace with need. “There’s no doubt that we will have to continue to build out our back-end infrastructure to move 50 million passengers on and off planes,” Craven says. “That’s no small task, but surfacing the communications interfaces just got a lot easier. The Windows Azure platform has given us a whole new extensibility model. Even if we go from 50 to 70 million passengers, we don’t have to add servers to scale.”
High Availability, Data Security
Whenever an organization exposes any kind of service, there is always the danger of creating a new attack surface. Will the service allow inbound connections? Could someone launch a service attack? “We had a high level of confidence that we were doing something fundamentally safe,” Craven says of the move to the Windows Azure platform. “With Windows Azure Service Bus, we can leave our data behind our firewall and provide safe connections to it. It gave our management the assurance it needed to proceed with the Halo idea. It was a small architectural element that produced huge benefits for us.”
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Windows Azure. Windows Azure is a development, service hosting, and service management environment. It provides developers with on-demand compute, storage, bandwidth, content delivery, middleware, and marketplace capabilities to build, host, and scale web applications through Microsoft data centers.
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