JetBlue supports iPhone -- as long as it's the employee's device

Airline's call center is run by employees working from home through a VDI environment

ORLANDO -- Since it almost went under in 2007, Jet Blue has undertaken several cost-saving and technology streamlining initiatives, including outsourcing its data center infrastructure and rolling out desktop virtualization this year in support of its 14,000 employees.

When it came to employees using smartphones, the airline issued Blackberries, but they also allowed iPhones and Android smartphones as long as employees connect through a VPN.

As JetBlue CIO Joe Eng told an audience at Computerworld's SNW conference Tuesday, "we chose to embrace mobile and get ahead of it.

"It allowed us to skirt around the issue of having to issue Apple in the environment," he continued. "I fully support Apple, just yours not ours."

Over time, Eng said JetBlue won't even have to issue corporate Blackberries because most employees will want to use their own devices . "They keep them up to date better than enterprise does at times anyway," he said.

In 2007, JetBlue was reeling financially from high fuel prices and service problems that stranded passengers on grounded jets for hours. The problems resulted in the ousting of founder and CEO David Neeleman.

"If you know anything about this industry, you know it's a very tough industry from a margin perspective, a revenue perspective ... and the cost structures are very difficult," Eng said.

The following year, the airline embarked on a complete technology overhaul that included a web services infrastructure, the outsourcing of most of its data center operations to Verizon, and the deployment of a Citrix-based virtual desktop infrastructure, which is still under development today.

Previously, the airline had been a Window-based operation and had run its own data center, networks and call center. Eng said the airline "struggled" with letting go of that control, but given the scale and size of the IT investments it was trying to maintain, an infrastructure- and software-as-a-service model was the more reliable, scalable and cheaper approach.

Eng noted how many IT managers struggle with rolling out every new version of Microsoft Office, keeping up to date with each new release. "Over time you don't take the next version, and the next thing know you're four versions behind," he said.

The virtual desktop infrastructure allows the airline to keep up with platform refreshes because only servers need to be updated, not every single workstation.

It also allows employees to use their own handheld, notebook or desktop devices, allows access to information from anywhere and allows open collaboration, Eng said.

"A lot of them are pilots, flight attendants who don't have a traditional desktop environment to come to," he said.

In early 2010, the airline standardized on a single web interface application that is used for both passenger ticketing systems and call center services and moved to a self-service business model. JetBlue's new customer sales and service system is run by Sabre Web Services.

Today, most of its sales growth comes from website sales, and help desk employees work from home on laptops.

"We're going through the process now of virtualizing the entire enterprise," Eng said. "When you call 1-800 Jet Blue, [an employee] is sitting at home and not in your typical call center. Our at-home call center is several thousand [employees]. We'll be finished with that by next year. We'll be all virtualized."

Outsourcing improved the airline's disaster recovery and business continuity capabilities, as service agreements now dictate time to recover, and networks and data centers are redundant.

Prior to outsourcing, JetBlue's IT infrastructure didn't scale well and peak sales periods would slow system performance.

"We even went through a period of time where we were careful about putting out a marking program because it would slow our infrastructure," Eng said. "How do you explain that to the business? 'Hey, don't sell a lot.' That's not a good career move."

Outsourcing helped the airline with scaling its IT services in conjunction with peak and slow sales periods.

Eng said the best way to approach an IT project as immense as JetBlue's is to keep it simple and speak in business language to the stakeholders in the technology - the executives and board members.

"I can't say that enough. I think sometimes we as technologists ... we play to our stereotypes. We will talk about virtualization and SaaS as if it's some next-to-Godly creation," he said. "My board members will say, 'can you get to the punch line?' "

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com .

Read more about virtualization in Computerworld's Virtualization Topic Center.

This story, "JetBlue supports iPhone -- as long as it's the employee's device" was originally published by Computerworld.

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