Cloud computing has made getting people and planes into to the air easier for easyJet. Paul Bray asks their CIO Trevor Didcock the secret to their success. Get ready for take-off…
How does easyJet use cloud computing?
We were quite an early adopter of cloud. Our first cloud application was a flight-planning system three or four years ago – important and sophisticated, but pretty generic and would have been expensive to develop in-house. Now cloud accounts for 10-20 per cent of our applications, and I’d say 15-20 per cent of the services we provide are delivered at least in part through the cloud. Cloud and software-as-a service are our first choice now when we’re planning new applications.
What are the key benefits of a cloud approach?
The wonderful thing about cloud is that you can make it available anywhere. For the past three years we’ve been developing Halo, a mobile departure-control system used to board people on to our planes, which we believe is market-leading (see panel). We chose a cloud delivery model for Halo because of its independence and mobility. Because the application sits in the cloud, it’s available anywhere that has Wi-Fi or even 3G.
Would you say cloud has been enabling in developing Halo, or merely facilitating?
Certainly in the early days cloud made it possible, not just easier. It would have been too difficult and expensive to connect to easyJet’s network throughout an entire airport. Because it’s in the cloud, Halo can use any Wi-Fi network.
What else is easyJet doing in the cloud now?
We’re moving our email into the cloud, which will make it easier to scale. We now have many terabytes of data, and providing that amount of infrastructure in-house is slow and expensive. Cloud gives access to vast quantities of storage that can grow organically with the company and enables you to easily add further users without worrying about licensing, installation issues and so on.
Does cloud computing save money?
Yes, in that typically you pay as you go with a small element of fixed cost, so you can ramp up and down relatively quickly in volume terms and buy something that grows with you. Of course, you don’t just want variable costs in the short term, but to manage your long-term cost base in a more structured way. Although there are benefits in terms of capital costs, you have to remember that pay-per-transaction can result in higher operational costs as transaction volumes rise.
What other benefits are there?
Speed to market is one. With cloud you’re buying into a multi-tenanted infrastructure that’s already set up, so it’s much quicker to get going. Another advantage is to be more agile and able to respond more easily to competitive trends.
Many businesses are still worried about the security implications of cloud computing. How has easyJet dealt with this?
We set our appetite against the ISO27001 international security standard and build a security clause into all our contracts. You can’t just look at what the supplier provides and see if you can live with it. You have to set your own minimum standard and only do business with companies that can meet it. We find that most cloud service providers are used to answering these questions.
Was it difficult to convince the board that cloud is a good idea?
Not at all. Cloud fits our philosophy very well: easyJet is very focused on margin and returns, so the primary discussion is how can we deliver what’s needed appropriately and at the lowest cost. People ask what you can do and how quickly you can do it. Cloud doesn’t come up as a specific question now, although it did in the early stages of Halo. As cloud has become the established model for us, it’s often something they’re more comfortable with.
What has been the effect on the IT department?
Because we’re buying a “wrapped” service, we don’t need to dedicate so much resource on a day-to-day basis, which enables us to run a leaner IT department. We have just over 100 people in IT, which is low for a £4 billion turnover business, and we spend less than one per cent of revenue on IT, which is very low for an airline. Cloud has been a big contributor to that.
Is cloud computing making it more difficult for CIOs to maintain control of their company’s IT?
It’s possible for individual business units to do things very quickly through cloud but end up with something that’s not properly integrated and that soon starts costing more money, so you have to be on the ball. It’s really a question of trust.
Is there anything you wouldn’t put into the cloud?
There are a couple of systems that are really critical to us – our reservation system which, together with the web, accounts for 90 per cent of our bookings, and AIMS, our on-the-day operational system. At this stage I’d still be very careful about putting those into the cloud. We have bits of our website on Microsoft Azure, but they’re not so vital that we couldn’t manage without them for a while.
What about the future?
More of our applications will steadily move into the cloud. This will make things tough for some of the big outsourcing providers, as organisations like us buy individual services and integrate them themselves.
Is the cloud debate over then?
I think it should be over, as long as you approach a cloud service in the same way you’d approach an on-premise service. I’m completely comfortable with either.
Lean, mean machines
The Halo system helps easyJet keep things moving
EasyJet’s latest cloud-computing project is Halo, a mobile boarding application which communicates with the airline’s central systems using Microsoft’s cloud service, Azure.
Using Wi-Fi and 3G wireless technology, Halo enables easyJet staff in the departure area to roam at will instead of being restricted to a desk – going along the check-in line, for example, and ensuring passengers don’t slip through without being registered.
Currently being piloted at four airports (soon to be six), Halo can run on a variety of mobile devices. The initial deployment is on “ruggedised” Motorola handheld terminals with detachable mini printers and chip and pin readers.
In addition to boarding, easyJet expects to add more applications, such as disruption management. This allows mobile agents to assist passengers when flights need to be rescheduled or rebooked.
Mobile boarding devices allow flexible operations at the boarding gate, including pre-boarding in open gates areas, pre-flight validation of visa requirements and rapid scanning of boarding passes. Halo will allow staff to take chip-and-pin payments for any excess charges that need to be collected before boarding, cutting the risk of delayed flights.
Because the Wi-Fi or 3G network is available anywhere with cloud computing, mobile devices can be taken on to the aircraft to resolve counting discrepancies quickly.
They also add flexibility in airports, particularly during disruption, airport network failures or power cuts, allowing easyJet to operate from anywhere in the airport that has wireless coverage.