• United States

Server consolidation helps JetBlue soar

Jun 09, 20036 mins
Enterprise Applications

JetBlue Airways CIO Jeff Cohen could see a storm waiting to happen. Ever since the discount carrier launched its inaugural flight in 2000, business has been booming and the company’s IT infrastructure was growing along with it.

Whenever a reservation or flight application needed more processing power, Cohen would throw more steel at it. So the company, which started with fewer than a dozen servers in a single data center, was running about 250 servers in three data centers by the end of last year, and that number was only going to increase as JetBlue continued to add flights and attract customers.

“A bell went off in my mind about six months ago,” Cohen says. “I could just see that I was going to be faced with server consolidation at some point. So I thought, ‘Why don’t we start by taking some of our mission-critical applications and putting them on scale-up vs. scale-out servers?'”

JetBlue decided to scrap dozens of commodity servers and install Unisys’ ES7000 servers, which are modular Windows-based boxes that include self-monitoring and self-healing software. Some of the ES7000s JetBlue deployed are new hybrid machines that include 32- and 64-bit processors, and PCI-blade appliances in a single box. It’s all running on Windows 2003 Server Datacenter Edition.

The key for JetBlue is to keep down costs and make the most efficient use of technology, Cohen says. As a result, JetBlue isn’t timid about making progressive, front-of-the-pack decisions when it comes to IT. For example, the airline’s 760 reservations agents work from home on voice over IP (VoIP) phones – and have been for more than three years. All of the company’s nearly 5,000 employees – JetBlue calls them crewmembers – have e-mail. All the pilots have laptop computers in the cockpit, which give them up-to-date access to airplane metrics and electronic flight manuals.

“We have a totally wireless infrastructure; we’re using Gigabit Ethernet. You name it, we’re out there,” Cohen says. “We want to be the lead dog.”

The Microsoft decision

JetBlue was in the lead when it came to Microsoft. The airline made the decision early on to run its applications on commodity Compaq servers in a standard Windows environment.

“In the old days, people would say, ‘Ah, a Microsoft environment. You really can’t depend on them for enterprise applications; it’s really only Office and the Windows thing’. . . . But Microsoft and JetBlue sort of grew up together into the enterprise business,” Cohen says.

By standardizing on Microsoft, Cohen says he’s saving a bundle – he wouldn’t give specifics – by not having to train people on multiple platforms. JetBlue also is making use of Web services by writing applications using .Net.

“JetBlue never had to deploy Unix. It never had to deploy AS/400s. It never had to put all of these other technologies out there, which obviously cost a lot of money to run,” he says.

It’s those kinds of decisions that help JetBlue rise above the rest in the airline industry, Cohen says. While many of the major airlines have struggled in the past year or so, especially after the drop in travel after Sept. 11, JetBlue continues to grow. The airline, which features leather seats with free satellite TV for every passenger, reported operating revenue of $635 million for 2002, a 98% increase over the $320 million it reported a year earlier. In the first quarter this year, operating revenue jumped nearly 63% over the same quarter in 2002.

JetBlue sells only e-tickets and does more than 70% of its business online. So while JetBlue’s original IT infrastructure was designed to keep down costs, it also was straining to keep up with its load. The Unisys boxes let Cohen simplify his data center and ensure that JetBlue’s Web site and critical applications stay up and running, he says. originally ran on two servers, but had grown to encompass about 64 boxes, Cohen says. He replaced the Compaq servers that ran with three of the hybrid ES7000/560s, letting him run 64-bit Microsoft SQL databases on Itanium 2 processors, reservation applications on 32-bit Xeon processors, and Web server and infrastructure applications on the PCI blade appliances – all in the same box.

“So we have what were 64 servers reduced to three boxes. Think about how much less that is to administer and how much easier it is to look for the problem if something goes wrong,” Cohen says.

In addition, he says, reliability is better.

Breaking up

Unisys’ Cellular Multiprocessing architecture lets him break large systems into modular components.

“It’s like having multiple servers inside of one frame. You can fail over within the same box,” Cohen says. “So rather than having to go out on the network cable and crossing over the network you can do it right in the same box.”

Cohen moved the airline’s maintenance and engineering system to an ES7000 server with 32 processors. He also boosted the performance of the airline’s SQL Server-based customer data warehouse by deploying it on a 16-processor Itanium 2 ES7000 running Windows 2003 Datacenter Edition.

“At this point, I’ve taken pretty much every single mission-critical application and moved it to an ES7000,” he says.

In addition to consolidating servers, Cohen has installed an EMC-based storage-area network to get more out of JetBlue’s storage resources.

“EMC allowed me to take my storage from about 37% utilization up to about 87% utilization,” he says.

VoIP, meanwhile, lets JetBlue run an effective call center even though all agents work from their homes.

Agents access the airlines reservation-system application and phone system via two dial-up lines to their homes. The dial-up line for the application connects workers to the LAN inside the Salt Lake City data center. PC client software is used to access the system.

To get onto the call center’s phone network, agents dial into an Avaya Definity G3 PBX phone switch, running call routing software for queuing and transferring calls to the right agent. The PBX establishes a direct link to the JetBlue agent, who hooks in via software rather than a traditional call-center desk phone set. The software is an Avaya softphone client that runs on Windows PCs and connects to the main office through a modem connection. The agents use a USB headset to talk with customers.

The softphone client also is integrated with the back-end systems, letting agents access customer records or other information quickly through screen-pops.

JetBlue also uses an Avaya interactive voice response (IVR) server, attached to the PBX, to handle thousands of calls per month from customers looking for flight updates and other information.

“IVR is another great tool,” says Fankie Littleford, vice president for reservations at JetBlue. “That’s another 85,000 calls that would normally have to be handled by a reservation agent.”

Going forward, Cohen says he’s looking for more ways to use technology to improve customer service. The company is creating a single data warehouse to serve the entire company, for example.

“We’re looking for solutions to deliver better customer experiences,” he says. “That’s what it’s about. That’s the key to everything we’re doing.”