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Helping JetBlue see black

The upstart airline that is turning standardization into profits doesn't see the typical heterogeneous technology found in the enterprise as a smart choice. For JetBlue, it's a Windows world.

People working at airlines don't like to talk about crashes, not even those affecting their computers.

So it might seem strange to see a major airline turn to Windows, a product much maligned as crash-prone, as the only way to run a successful business. Yet for Jeff Cohen, chief information officer of JetBlue Airways, Windows is the only way to run a successful business--in fact, it's a nearly 100 percent Microsoft software operation.

Certainly, it's hard to argue with the success of JetBlue's standardization approach. The company flies only Airbus A320 aircraft, of which it has 41, with plans to add a dozen more by the end of the year. Having a single kind of plane, the company hopes, means lower costs for training, maintenance and parts, because everything is interchangeable.

JetBlue, which is one of just a few profitable airlines, saw its operating revenue jump 96 percent year over year in the fourth quarter and more than 98 percent for 2002 compared with the previous year. In an industry where competitors are flying to bankruptcy, JetBlue saw its fourth-quarter operating margins jump to 16.8 percent from 4.2 percent a year earlier. (The airline announces first-quarter earnings Thursday.)

Cohen's organization would like to take some credit for those margin gains. By standardizing on one operating system and using other Microsoft software, the JetBlue CIO says he cut the company's technical staff by 50 percent. Electronic publishing of pilot manuals, which are available on a cockpit laptop, also helps cut costs. For Cohen, standardization of information technology, like the approach to the planes, is helping to keep JetBlue in the black when other airlines fly in the red.

Q: Discuss your approach to a standardized IT infrastructure.
A: When I joined the company in January 2000 and from my inception as VP and CIO in April 2000, I standardized on the Windows platform. I chose to do that because I felt from the server platform all the way out to the desktop and back that to have one type of operating system and to be able to train one type of technician and to be able to buy one type of software would put a great control on the total cost of ownership of the computing world within JetBlue.

So we marched down the road of the Windows platform. We don't have any Unix; we don't have an AS/400; we don't have any mainframes--we don't have anything outside of Windows. There has been tremendous cost savings. We've also had about a 50 percent reduction in head count for the other platforms you might have to support in multi-operating system servers.

I understand that you run Unisys servers on the back end; is that correct?
We do. What I've done over the course of the last six or eight months--as the company has grown and applications have been considered critical enough, and the company has evolved the volume of data that makes sense--JetBlue basically went to a model where we were going to scale up rather than scaling out.

Different flavors have different costs of ownership. I can tell you that I would need 50 percent more staff to run other operating systems.

When I first started with the company, when we had systems that required more processing power, we just added more servers to handle the functionality. For instance, if it was a database and we needed to mirror the database, then we needed a second server. If we had an application running and we wanted to fail-over the application, then that was four servers. And if we wanted to put it on the Web, initially it might have been one server but ended up to be six or eight servers. All of that together got us a system at 12, 14, 16 servers, serving up one application.

That sounds like a lot of administration.
From an administration perspective, that was pretty difficult. If the application failed, it was difficult to tell where the problems were, so from a manageability perspective it was more difficult. From an administrative perspective, it was more difficult. And in the end, from a scalability perspective, it was more difficult. So as an IT organization, we made a decision about seven or eight months ago that we would purchase our first Unisys ES7000. That server was one of the first beta Itanium 2 systems that were delivered...That system was used initially, is being used, for our data warehouse deployment. We have since purchased a Unisys ES7000 for our maintenance and engineering systems. What's happened over the last eight months is everything that's mission-critical has been moved or is being moved to these scale-up boxes rather than scale out.

Is that second server Itanium 2?
The second server is not Itanium 2. That's a 32-bit server running 32-bit applications.

What version of Windows Server are you running on those boxes?
We are running Windows Server 2003 Datacenter--the 64-bit version--on the Itanium 2. We are running Windows Server 2003 Datacenter--the 32-bit version--on the other Unisys server.

Can I assume you are running some version of SQL Server for your database?
It's Windows SQL Server 2000 64-bit on one and it's the Oracle system on the other, because that's what the manufacturer who makes the (application software) requires. We truly try to run a 100 percent Microsoft environment to keep the cost down; but if there are applications that we buy from vendors, whatever the required database is, that's what we run.

What other systems do you have?
The Unisys ES7000; I bought another one to run our frequent-flyer program. Today that's running on the HP rx5670 Itanium server, but we are moving it to the Unisys ES7000 Itanium 2. That thing probably gets a couple thousand hits an hour.

How many users do you have? And do you have Windows XP running on the desktop?
We have about 2,500 today, and we have Windows XP on the desktop.

Which version of Office do you use?
Currently we are running Office XP predominately, but we're already running Office 2003 on about 200 desktops.

What's the attraction of Office 2003 for you over Office XP?
The 2003 version has (Extensible Markup Language) XML savings format built in. The 2003 version has a much better version of Outlook, which has a special caching mode that cuts down on network connectivity time. Office 2003 has a lot of very good feature sets built into the product that will be cost-saving to JetBlue.

How do you plan to use XML throughout your organization?
We're going to actually convert our company manuals to XML.

Do you have an Intranet? Are you using any of the portal software from Microsoft?
We use SharePoint Portal. We deployed version one as a beta customer, and we are currently a beta customer for version two.

We have one of the only paperless cockpits in the sky.

Are your desktops all standardized on one vendor?
They are standardized on one vendor, and that's HP Compaq. We use notebooks as well. We were standardized on HP, and now it's on HP Compaq.

Could you further discuss your cost savings from standardizing on one platform?
I have 20 developers today. They only develop in Visual Studio .Net. If tomorrow, I put Linux in my environment, I would have to hire server people to build, monitor, maintain and administrate those servers, and I would have to hire a development staff to develop applications under the Linux operating system. That's an awful lot of people.

Today we don't have that, because everything's Windows. Every technician that works on a server works on a Windows server. Every technician working on a desktop works on a Windows desktop. That's quite a bit easier than other flavors of desktops or OS/2 or whatever else is out there. Different flavors have different costs of ownership. I can tell you that I would need 50 percent more staff to run other operating systems.

What are some of the other different ways you are using technology to remain lean and competitive?
Well, we have one of the only paperless cockpits in the sky. On the Windows Server 2003 platform there is a service that runs in Windows called the distributed file system. For regulatory purposes with the FAA, in and around airlines there must be manuals and the manuals must be up to date. JetBlue uses the distributed file system to publish the documents, and then we built an application that we call Bluebooks, which runs on the pilot laptop. That ensures when the pilot logs in he has the most up-to-date set of manuals.

We make manual changes a couple of times a week. We have 500 pilots, so think about what the printing costs are to print multiple pages for pilots every single week and then to distribute them to the pilots. Then think of all those pilot man-hours it would take to put all of those in the books and the old pages pulled out. The other way, the pilot plugs in and he's up to date.

How else do you use these pilot laptops?
One of the other things we do on the laptops is weight and balance. Every airline on every flight must do weight and balance of the plane--basically where the baggage is, how many people--because that tells them what numbers to set on all of their gauges as part of the computer system of the plane. They need to figure out how much fuel is needed--all of those things are done by a weight-and-balance program. JetBlue is one of the few airlines that does weight and balance right on the plane.