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, JetBlue Airways has undertaken several initiatives aimed at saving money and streamlining its IT operations. Those efforts include outsourcing its data center infrastructure and rolling out virtual desktops to its 14,000 employees this year.

When it came to adopting a smartphone policy, the airline decided to issue BlackBerries to its employees, but it also allows people to use their own iPhones and Android devices as long as they connect through a VPN.

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

The decision to allow employees to use their own iPhones for work "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."

Eng left the company on Sept. 30 and its still searching for a new tech chief.

At some point, Eng said, JetBlue will probably be able to stop issuing corporate BlackBerries, because he expects that most employees will want to use their own devices. "They keep them up to date better than the enterprise does at times anyway," he said.

In 2007, JetBlue recovering financially. It was the company's first profitable year since 2004. The problems resulted in the ouster 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 adopting a Web services infrastructure, outsourcing most of its data center operations to Verizon, and deploying a Citrix-based virtual desktop infrastructure, which is still under development today.

Previously, the airline had been a Windows-based enterprise and had run its own data center, networks and call center. Eng said the airline "struggled" with the idea of giving up control of some of its IT operations, 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 that many IT managers struggle with rolling out every new version of Microsoft Office and other new software releases. "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 JetBlue 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, and it enables them to access information from any location and supports 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's used for both passenger ticketing systems and call center services and it moved to a self-service business model. JetBlue's new customer sales and service system is run by Sabre Web Services.

Today, most of the airline's revenue growth comes from Web-based ticket 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, since recovery times are spelled out in agreements with service providers, and networks and data centers are redundant.

Before JetBlue embraced outsourcing, its IT infrastructure didn't scale well and system performance would decline during peak sales periods.

"We even went through a period of time where we were careful about putting out a marketing 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."

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 email address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

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