After years of having their core technology based on the ground, airlines are now starting to live up to their name and are heading into the clouds.
At its Air Transport IT Summit in Brussels last week, SITA announced a partnership with Orange Business Services to jointly develop a "managed cloud computing infrastructure".
SITA calls it the ATI Cloud [PDF] (Air Transport Industry Cloud).
Cloud computing, of course, isn’t new. Essentially it is on-demand computing paid for by the drip rather than for the individual component of hardware, software and managed services. It is a shared platform on which computing resources are provided to a wide array of users over a common infrastructure.
The community cloud concept would make sense for SITA and its large airline customer base. SITA has always had a community-based pricing structure. Airlines share many resources. They share airline services and inter-connect at many points.
Many airlines are also focused on being more efficient and outsourcing everything that is not core to their operations.
At the conference, Lufthansa CIO Christoph Klingenberg supported the concept of cloud computing, saying airline IT development of all kinds should be outsourced.
Cynics in the audience may view the SITA initiative as another attempt by IT vendors to boost IT spending and line their pockets after several lean years.
But, the logic for cloud-based computing is inescapable. While the business case is largely about the cost, the cloud is not just about dollars and cents. Cloud computing also simplifies the use of computing assets; it enables rapid deployment and makes IT accountable to the speed of business.
Airlines need flexibility and scalable IT services. Airport IT services, for example, need to accommodate a range of capabilities for a single flight operation a few times a week and to scale it into a 24/7 hub-type operation. In irregular operations, as occurred during the 2010 winter storms and ash clouds, the nature of operations may change with only hours’ notice.
The goals of the SITA airline cloud are admirable. The widely quoted 100ms (milliseconds) speed should be welcomed by airline executives who remember ALC terminals with sub-2 second response times as standard in the days of hardwired dumb green screen terminals (such as the Westinghouse 1642s).
Plus the ability to set up a new access to your reservations system within minutes rather than days and weeks, for example, would enable flexibility that airlines can only dream about.
However, the airlines and SITA’s managers must not impose the same legacy thinking that has held back innovation in the airline IT space, particularly in distribution.
In Brussels there was a lot of talk comparing airlines (not favourably) to Apple. Lauding Apple’s rise to the top, many speakers used words like “agility” and “focus.”
And this is where things could go awry. Apple imposes strict and commercially harsh terms on its vendors and users. The better model would probably be Amazon’s open cloud-based computing environment.
Unfortunately, SITA already is talking about a certification process. Such a process would restrict innovation and result in the perpetuation of the lowest common denominator approach.
It would be better for SITA to make the platform open and encourage its use for services not constrained to airlines alone. This is where standards will be important, but they should enable --not restrict -- innovation and meet the needs of the business.
Airlines have been slow to adopt cloud computing, but the announcement from SITA and its partner, Orange (aka France Telecom), will legitimize the cloud community approach.
Cloud computing also has long-term implications for airline IT, especially Passenger Service Systems (central airline reservations systems), which typically are hugely expensive and protracted projects.
Klingenberg of Lufthansa matter-of-factly spoke about his new 200 million euro DCS (Departure Control System). Another speaker spoke about his 5-6 year project to deliver a new reservations system.
Cloud computing promotes agility and rapid deployment. Application development is about light, small and fast.
SITA would do well to ensure that its commercial model for cloud computing is structured to promote the agility that has come to characterize the B2C marketplace for apps from Apple, Google and others. This approach enables users to download a new version of the app either on demand or automatically without any computing skills at all.
For the airline business, this will provide many benefits if the processes and management also change. Without this radical change, the benefits of cloud computing will at best be muted, and at worst lost or wasted altogether.
Cloud computing is about decentralization benefiting any user type as well as complex computer applications.
The promise of a totally flexible platform will also alleviate the needs for centralized services such as GDSs and encourage open distribution models.
With this approach, airlines would be able to reduce their dependency on monolithic systems and their attendant cost models, get closer to their customers and regain control of their product supply systems.