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Real World Windows Azure: Interview with Bert Craven, Enterprise Architect, easyJet

The Real World Windows Azure series staff recently talked to Bert Craven, Enterprise Architect at easyJet, Europe’s leading low-fare airline, about using Windows Azure Service Bus to securely…

The Real World Windows Azure series staff recently talked to Bert Craven, Enterprise Architect at easyJet, Europe’s leading low-fare airline, about using Windows Azure Service Bus to securely open up corporate applications to mobile devices at airports all over Europe. Let’s listen in:

MSDN: Tell us about the challenges you were trying to solve with Windows Azure Service Bus.

Craven: In most airports, we use Common Use platforms to provide departure control services such as bag drop, check in, and boarding. We fly to more than 130 airports in Europe and pay millions of pounds annually to rent desks and Common Use equipment. These are expensive, inflexible, closed systems are not well suited to easyJet’s style of rapid, low-cost innovation and adaptation. Furthermore, the contractual terms are rarely well suited to our need to flex our levels of service over seasonal peaks and troughs, operate out of airports for only part of the year, deploy and exit quickly with changes in demand, and so on.

More importantly, these terminals anchor our service agents behind desks, which is not always the best place to serve customers. We wanted our service agents to be free to roam around airport check-in areas with mobile devices and not only check in passengers but sell them additional services, such as rental cars, subway tickets, and so forth.

MSDN: What was the technical problem to doing this?

Craven: This vision of mobile airport service agents has been around for a long time, but the problem is securely opening up our back-end business systems to mobile devices. It’s too big a risk, and no airline, including easyJet, has been willing to do it.

MSDN: So how did Windows Azure Service Bus help?

Craven: Service Bus gave us a way to make our back-end, on-premises services available publicly but in a secure and flexible way. Instead of exposing endpoints in the easyJet data center, we can expose services in the Microsoft cloud where anyone can consume them. The address for the service is in the cloud and stays the same regardless of which data center I provision it from. We don’t have to build a new high-availability service platform, make firewall configuration changes, or deploy lots of new servers.

We also used Windows Azure Access Control to provide authorization services. Access Control gave us a rich, federated security model based on open standards, which was critical.

MSDN: Very cool. So, what did you actually build using Service Bus and Access Control?

Craven: We built a mobile service-delivery platform called Halo that overlays the European airports in which we operate with a secure, private communications network and local wireless endpoints. Wireless handheld devices access the communications network in a managed device layer. Halo services are exposed through Service Bus to access back-end applications such as boarding, sales, customer relationship management, and others. Eventually, Halo will also accommodate portable computers, kiosks, and any other devices that can help us serve customers better.

MSDN: How did your developers like working with Service Bus and Access Control?

Craven: It was very easy for our developers to come up to speed on these Windows Azure services. They still write .NET code in the Microsoft Visual Studio development system. The jump from consuming normal .NET services was incredibly straightforward. We had to do little more than change a configuration file to expose our services in Windows Azure. With Service Bus, we’ve been able to deliver features that previously would have required reams of code. It gave us extensive out-of-the-box functionality that enabled us to get new services to market before our competitors, using familiar development tools.

MSDN: Have you rolled out the Halo platform yet?

Craven: We have piloted Halo at select airports and given service agents access to applications that support boarding and payment. In the next phase, we’ll roll out additional functionality, including check-in, ticket purchases, and other services. Ultimately, we’re aiming for a full suite of operational, retail, and CRM applications.

MSDN: What kind of savings will easyJet realize with Halo?

Craven: Reducing our usage of and reliance on Common Use platforms whilst augmenting them with our own mobile, flexible platform could amount to multi-million pound savings annually, as well as providing a gateway to other cost reductions and new streams of revenue.

MSDN: Wow. What about the benefit to your customers?

Craven: That’s the whole point of Halo; with it, we can give customers faster service and a better airport experience by eliminating many of the lines they currently wait in. A roaming agent can triage questions a lot faster than an agent stuck behind a desk. Halo will also be of huge benefit during periods of disruption such as recent bouts with snow and volcanic ash, where traditional resources were placed under unbearable strain.

MSDN: In addition to CUTE rental savings, what are other benefits to the business?

Craven: Without Service Bus, there’s a good chance that this project simply would not have gotten off the ground. It would have cost way too much just to get to the prototype stage. I was able to create something single-handedly that was proof enough for management to proceed with the idea.

As for ongoing development, Windows Azure has become an extension of our on-premises environment and gives developers a unified experience, because it’s an extension of what they already know. It’s a low-cost sandbox in which we can cost-effectively incubate new ideas. The moment the competition catches up, we want to innovate again.

Of course, Windows Azure also gives us immense scalability, high availability, and airtight data security. We have a high level of confidence that we are doing something fundamentally safe.

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