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Thu 1 Apr 2004 04:00 AM

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Integrated aviation

Saudi Arabian Airlines has implemented IBM's WebSphere platform to ease integration and reduce the number of point-to-point interfaces it has to manage.

The Problem|~|Saudi Arabian 747_m.jpg|~||~|Saudi Arabian Airlines (SAA) has rolled out IBM’s WebSphere platform at its eBusiness Centre to improve integration between its many legacy systems and ease the tying together of its mainframe applications and new e-business solutions. Before deploying WebSphere, SAA relied on point-to-point integration to connect its various applications, the majority of which were built specifically for the aviation industry some time ago.

While the Kingdom’s airline had, over time, developed all the interfaces it needed to ensure systems such as its reservations software and flight operation app were connected, the set up had limitations and created a management and maintenance headache for those working in the eBusiness centre.

“To synchronise all of the data between all of the applications required many interfaces. There were a lot of point-to-point interfaces in our environment and it took a tremendous amount of effort to maintain this,” says Muhammad Ali Albakri, chief of systems engineering & applications, information technology, SAA.

“Furthermore, the systems we use are legacy ones so the number of people available with the nitty-gritty knowledge of them to do all of this integration work has declined over the years,” he adds.

While reducing the IT department’s maintenance duties had been one of the airline’s goals for sometime, the increasingly competitive nature of the aviation industry forced the issue to the top of the airline’s technology agenda. The eBusiness Centre not only needed to be capable of rolling out systems that address internal users’ requirements, but also focus on developing services that exceed customer expectations.

“There was an ever-increasing demand from our users and our business clients. They no longer buy into the argument that systems should be complicated and they want more and they want it straight away. At the same time, the airline is doing more, such as moving into e-business. When all this came together there was a realisation that life could not continue as it was,” explains Ali Albakri.

“Also, the airline industry is dynamic and very competitive so there is a lot of change and this has an impact on the IT systems and the interfaces. Any change creates yet more changes [in a point-to-point environment] and this is not only frustrating for us but also for business users as it can delay the implementation of the services they need,” he adds.

SAA selected WebSphere for several key reasons. First of all, it worked with the bulk of the airline’s legacy systems, including its airline customer system (ALCS), and it fitted well with its predominantly mainframe environment. It was also robust enough to handle up to 20 million transactions per day, which the airline regularly generates.

“We looked at a lot of alternatives but they don’t all work with our systems. The most difficult one was ALCS, which hosts the reservation and departure control system. Whatever technology we used had to work with this, which WebSphere does,” explains Ali Albakri.||**||The Solution|~|Saudi Arabian 747_m.jpg|~||~|WebSphere solves SAA’s integration issues by replacing its standalone interfaces with a robust integration layer. To ensure that its legacy systems are accessible through the middleware, the airline’s IT department has built a web front end on them, which means they now work as browser-based applications.

“This meant that we did not have to invest in changing any legacy code and we just used the new tools to build the web front for those applications,” says Ali Albakri. “We have also been able to take sub-functions from each one of those applications regardless of what they are running on and combine those functions together on one screen. For example, for users that take care of flight dispatch it means they no longer have to log in and out of the different core applications from different terminals. It has allowed us to give them easier access without upgrading the backend systems,” he explains.

In terms of new applications, SAA can now develop them in Java and integrate them with the legacy systems through WebSphere, rather than having to build them with aviation specific protocols or integrate them with the mainframe applications through a series of interfaces. For example, the company is looking to introduce a customer portal, mobile applications and an enterprise web content management system.

“We want to build, host and operate a new breed of applications that take advantage of internet technologies. By integrating the two platforms we can achieve our objectives of continual business operations and developing our environment by adding new systems,” says Ali Albakri.

“By adding the new e-business layer we can not only do this, but integrate them [the new applications] with the existing environment to leverage our investment in the legacy systems and capitalise on the business functionality they house,” he adds.

In addition to easing integration for the airline, the implementation of WebSphere has had secondary benefits for SAA. For instance, it has removed the shackles of interface management from the eBusiness Centre and allowed it to focus on value add projects instead. Ali Albakri also believes that with WebSphere SAA has finally found a way to make the most of the masses of data held in its mainframe.

“We have unleashed the power, information and functions of our core applications that have, in the past, only been accessible through a mainframe network. Now they can be accessed via the internet and this has been a new alternative for our offices and stations around the world. Rather than going over the SITA network via dumb terminals they can have full access through the internet, thus lowering costs and giving them better services,” he explains.

Moving forward, SAA is intent upon maximising the integration capabilities of WebSphere and is in the process of exploring its more advanced messaging capabilities. At the same time, it is also exploring ways of making the integration platform perform quicker, so it replicates the application access speeds offered by point-to-point connections.

“Eventually we will knock out all of the interfaces that we have. We have a long way to go, but we are well on our way and the next milestone will be the end of the point-to-point interfaces,” says Ali Albakri.

“The challenge now is to make the WebSphere middleware as fast as point-to-point and to ensure that we use it to provide users with better and more personalised services so they can do their job more effectively,” he adds. ||**||

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