The idea of designing IT architectures to manage loosely coupled services and support business processes is nothing new. But the lack of a single approach service oriented architecture (SOA), means that adopting it is a daunting task.

This is why the experiences of France’s number one airline are invaluable to any CIO looking to take on an SOA strategy. Air France has pursued the strategy for over a decade now. And although the Googles, Amazons and Yahoos of this world may have the expertise and resources to manage SOA because of their e-commerce based business models, the French carrier’s example is perhaps more useful because it has its foundations in a more traditional business evolution.

Jean Christophe Lalanne, assistant to Air France’s general manager of information systems, says the starting point towards SOA was the realisation in the mid-1990s that, “our systems were suffering from a number of defects”. Air France’s monolithic software architectures were proving inadequate to support a modern, global business.

Preflight checks

The company faced a number of problems. Its systems were unable to respond to business expansion and its increasing distributed systems and staff, who needed up-to-date, real-time information to run the business. There was also an increasing number of communication channels that customers were using to book flights, such as mobile, SMS and the internet, that meant the company required a broader IT approach.

And finally, the airline industry was being subject to increased operational and financial regulation. So it needed an IT function that could handle the highest levels of governance and management control.
When Air France merged with Dutch rival KLM three years ago, the commitment to SOA development facilitated the, ‘two companies, one group’ operating model. It helped the sister companies share resources effectively while maintaining the cultural independence and identity of their individual organisations. The consolidation of the long-established KLM and Air France has proved a test of how reorienting IT systems around service-based design and management can help address the challenges of a merger.

SOA ready for takeoff

The complexity of Air France’s then IT infrastructure will be familiar to many rapidly growing organisations.

“The applications we had were targeting operational excellence but at a local level. We had built them in silos. They were monolithic, specific to their business area and difficult to put in communication with other applications. Overall, the global vision, what we call today business architecture, had not been addressed and there were frequent instances of multiple applications doing the same thing and duplicated data. We had eight operating environments, all different, in three different locations – Paris, Toulouse and Nice,” says Lalanne.

“We decided that first of all, we had to restructure the architecture of the applications into different layers. We proposed three layers – the core business components, the process logic and the presentation logic – and we very quickly understood that we could benefit from reusable components, which we called application services,” says Lalanne.

The company decided to construct a technical architecture to manage reusable components. “We built a lot of service architecture – the way you identify, model, validate and publish the components,” he says.
“We had to build our own middleware inhouse because when we started, there was no product available to cover our requirements. We had so many different technical environments that we decided to develop our own.”

AIR FRANCE KEY FACTS

In 1995, Air France was split into two companies: Air France and Air Inter. Now it is a wholly owned subsidiary of the transcontinental giant Air France KLM, formed when the French and Dutch marques merged in 2004.

But the Air France KLM merger was unusual in that it created two separate companies within one group. A strategic management committee comprising four members from each company, plus chief executive Jean-Cyril Spinetta lead the organisation.

In 2005-6, the Air France KLM Group carried 70 million passengers. It also operates air transport subsidiaries, Servair for airline catering and cleaning operations, CRMA for aeronautical repairs, freight forwarding business SoDExi, as well as local carriers Régional, Brit Air, Dublin-based CityJet and Transavia France. It also operates Air France Consulting as a separate subsidiary, offering air transport management consultancy and engineering services.

A sign of its SOA maturity is the fact that Air France can now look at moving away from maintaining the wholly inhouse SOA infrastructure and invest in standardised packages, including Tibco BusinessWorks as its enterprise service bus (ESB) to manage the messaging mechanisms used to integrate applications networked as web services. The company currently has 2,400 services in operation, using 1,000 applications managed by two inhouse middleware packages: Samothrace and Adhesion.

These services are organised around two main business areas: flights and customers. With an added service directory, these act as the predecessors of a modern-day ESB.

"Change management in this context was critical"

Jean Christophe Lalanne, assistant to general manager of information systems, Air France

The sheer growth in volumes of data being handled by Samothrace and Adhesion provided a clear incentive to move to a more standardised approach conveniently emerging from the ubiquity of internet-based communications. “When we are in a peak period we have something like 200 service calls per second, so intensity of calls is huge. Each day we have 10 million calls between one component and another to call a service and 300 million per month,” says Lalanne.

The company wanted to move to a more standards-based approach, but the cultural adjustment was as big a challenge as the technical one. “It was difficult to convince our people because they are so proud of what they have already done with the company’s inhouse SOA. So the change management in this context was critical,” adds Lalanne.

Another key consideration is that service oriented architectures are not cheap. Air France estimates the total migration costs to Tibco’s ESB at €10 million (£6.83m). But Lalanne says clear business drivers and the maturity of the market for SOA tools have ultimately acted as triggers for change. “The first trigger was clearly the merger. We had to think how to link our systems with KLM systems and build a common application strategy without having a common middleware. We proposed using Adhesion and Samothrace and they said yes, but just for the short term. They understood that this was proprietary and were not ready to base our common future on something that was built just for Air France. So for change management and to get agreement from KLM, we had to go to a common standard,” he says.

The second trigger was a clear vision of the future, an application architecture based on interoperability with external, industry-wide systems. “Today we already use [the global distribution system] Amadeus for reservations and we use a proprietary solution between Amadeus and ourselves.” Standards play a central role to progressing the airline’s SOA strategy. “Part of the equation we have today is to ask what are the standards we can rely on to frame the future.”

But to run with a new Tibco environment, the company will take a cautious approach to migration. “We want to manage and mitigate the risk, so we will not do a big bang. This is a long project where we will take our time. The first step is to set up a programme – an SOA programme, split into six streams. We will deliver these six streams, and at the end of these, perhaps within the next 15 months, we will be able to modify the organisation to incorporate SOA, not just as a programme but as a culture, through change management and training. That will be the second step. In parallel with that second step, we will use the SOA principles and Tibco for a huge project to replace the departure control system at Air France and KLM with the Amadeus system on a software basis next year.”

It is clear to see from the experience of Air France and Lalanne, SOA is not for the faint hearted but Air France is managing to coordinate and harmonise its IT infrastructure with that of KLM, having gained invaluable understanding of its improved, SOA-based internal systems.

BY THE NUMBERS

Air France has:
l 2,000 IT staff
l 500 business architects
l Three processing centres
l 35,000 workstations
l 5,000 laptops
l 1,000 inhouse applications
l 2,000 business services
l 13 million daily messages exchanged between services