Network Management Takes Flight

Spirit Airlines is flying high, thanks to its innovative use of IT and a determination not to outsource critical functions. (Originally published in IT Architect)

July 1, 2005

9 Min Read
Network Computing logo

Company: Spirit Airlines

Project Leader: David M. Anderson, senior vice president and CIO

Technology In Focus: Network management software

Problem: To maintain its competitive edge, Spirit not only built and maintains its own reservation system (including the airline's Web portal), but it also runs its own flight operations center. While this saves Spirit millions of dollars in outsourcing costs, it also requires network management tools to keep the company infrastructure operating efficiently.

Solution: The airline turned from homegrown applications to Fidelia's NetVigil network management software.Bottom Line: Spirit saves $5 to $10 million each year running its own IT infrastructure. Its management solution allows a lean IT staff of 12 to keep the system running 24-by-7 at minimal cost.

The turbulence in the travel industry hasn't hurt the IT architects at Spirit Airlines, the country's largest privately held airline. Spirit, which provides low-cost flights from the nation's Northeast and Midwest "snowbelt" to sunny vacation spots in Florida, Mexico, and the Caribbean, is going against industry trends by expanding aggressively.

Unlike the major carriers, Spirit is extending its system, serving more cities more frequently. It's adding flights to Denver and Las Vegas, while increasing daily flight numbers to 120, moving four million passengers each year. And unlike the big boys, Spirit is profitable, with 2003 sales of about $450 million--an 11 percent increase over 2002.

IT has played a key role in helping Spirit earn those bucks. The airline was among the earliest adopters of new cost-saving technologies, from Linux servers in the data center to wireless credit card readers on the in-flight drink carts. It treats technology as a vital asset and competitive differentiator: "We've done things differently than others in our segment," says David M. Anderson, Spirit's senior vice president and CIO. "We've brought much of our technology in-house."Like other low-fare airlines, Spirit runs its own reservation system, rather than relying on major reservation services such as Sabre. Unlike most others, however, Spirit hosts the database on its own servers at data centers in Miramar, FL, and Detroit, MI. It also runs its own flight operations system, a task most airlines outsource, and even hosts its own Web site.

Operating its own systems helps Spirit keep fares low and profits high. Anderson estimates that it saves $5 to $10 million a year, including hard and soft dollars. But it also puts a heavy responsibility on Anderson and his staff. If any of the systems fail, they have no one else to blame, so finding the right network management tools was essential.

NO SAFETY NET

Since its early days as Charter One, a Detroit-based tour operator that sold vacation packages to Atlantic City, Las Vegas, and the Bahamas, Spirit has paid close attention to technology. According to Anderson, the rationale is simple: It keeps costs down.

"Our driving mantra in everything we do is to not inject added costs into our operations," he says. Today, Spirit's investment in technology has paid off. Anderson believes it gives the Miramar-based carrier an important competitive advantage, both in passenger-facing operations and behind the scenes.Spirit is the first domestic airline to process credit and debit card transactions in-flight, meaning it can charge passengers for snacks and beverages without the expense of handling cash. Flight attendants carry Commerciant's MobileScape hand-held card readers, which use GPRS cellular service to upload transaction details when the plane lands.

Cellular data is one of the few things that Spirit relinquishes to an outside service provider. Almost everything else is handled in-house, which not only cuts costs but also gives Anderson more control over features and functionality.

FLIGHT TO FREEDOM

The freedom to choose features and keep control of data is particularly important for the airline's reservation system. "It's all about control and the ability to customize as needed," Anderson explains. "The airline industry requires a level of agility that we couldn't achieve with a hosted solution."

Agility, to Anderson, involves two requirements. First, the system must give Spirit "the ability to act and react to market changes when we want to, as opposed to when a hosting company or other vendor responds." Second, it must be able to run on a wide variety of hardware and software platforms so that Spirit can choose the most competitive implementation.To achieve that agility, Spirit doesn't just host the reservation application itself. Anderson even developed it in-house, with the help of Results Reservations Technology, a Zurich-based consultancy. Known as Technologically Advanced Spirit Airlines Reservations (TASAR), the application has been in service since 2003.

TASAR runs under Linux on HP ProLiant 570 series servers. According to Anderson, Linux has several advantages over the other OSs, including portability between hardware platforms and freedom from vendor lock-in.

AGILE AIRLINE

In addition to TASAR, Spirit also hosts other key elements of its operations in the Detroit and Miramar data centers. The two are connected to each other via a pair of leased T3 circuits. This provides redundancy between both the data links and the data centers themselves.Spirit books more than 60 percent of its ticket sales online. Because the site is so critical to its business, the airline hosts it in-house at its Detroit data center. Insourcing the site also helps keep costs down and allows tighter integration with TASAR.

The data centers also house the systems that control passenger check-ins, gate assignments, and associated processes, such as the printing of boarding passes. The Miramar data center additionally hosts the airline's flight operations systems, which handles crew scheduling and payroll, as well as manages flight plans.

Despite Spirit's breadth of technology and geographic coverage--the airline supports technology operations at 18 airports, call centers in Fort Lauderdale, FL, and Detroit, and aircraft maintenance facilities in several cities--it runs a lean IT staff, with only 12 personnel to provide year-round, 24-by-7 coverage. "We couldn't do that without a reliable tool to monitor what's going on in each of our components," Anderson emphasizes.

SELF-BUILT TOOLS

Spirit began investigating network management software in 2001, shortly after Anderson joined the airline. At the time, Spirit used several simple monitoring tools that it had built in-house, but the IT infrastructure was outgrowing them.According to Dan Piec, Spirit's director of information systems operations, the self-built tools didn't provide any automated management capabilities. "They relied on simple scripts that tested communications to remote centers, with no application monitoring," he says. "We couldn't ping resources, and they gave us no historical information. It was just raw tools that gave us status information on equipment."

"We were looking for a product that would give us better alarms and notification, maintain a collective history of problems for later analysis, and allow us to monitor for load conditions, particularly at key airport locations," says Anderson.

Piec and Anderson were particularly interested in analyzing the traffic loads between the data centers and airports so that they could avoid buying unnecessary leased-line capacity. "Every airport goes through peaks and valleys," says Anderson. "We weren't able to see how much bandwidth we were using in peak periods."

LOW-COST CARRIER

The obvious choices were products such as IBM's Tivoli or HP's OpenView, but these didn't fit the airline's cost-cutting mantra. "They were very expensive--way beyond our budget," says Piec.Then, in mid-2001, a Fort Lauderdale reseller showed Piec Fidelia's NetVigil business service monitoring software. This was able to monitor a wide range of Spirit's applications, including its Microsoft Exchange e-mail and SQL servers; databases from Oracle, Sybase, and IBM (DB2); a variety of application servers, such as the Apache and BEA Systems Web servers; and the homegrown TASAR.

Spirit began deploying the software in late 2001, first with a limited set of monitoring capabilities on a few servers at key airport locations. The software immediately showed Spirit which servers were, in Anderson's words, "close to falling off a cliff capacity-wise or had room to grow."

"We did see early on that it allowed us to get ahead of circuit ordering, and we had some servers close to their capacity and about to crash," he says. That allowed Spirit to replace or enhance the servers before they hit the wall.

Spirit has since grown the number and kinds of items that NetVigil monitors. It now manages about 170 devices, including servers, switches, and routers. "The software tracks every communications circuit and all of our servers in our data centers, as well as a couple of servers in remote locations," says Anderson. "I don't need to monitor PCs on desktops--just for critical functions of our operations."

TRAFFIC CONTROLAnderson says keeping a close watch on his network has forestalled numerous potential system crashes. He recalls a problem that threatened to crash one of the airline's four front-end servers that deliver applications to employees in its reservation and flight control centers. "When we lose one of those, it temporarily knocks users off the network," he says.

NetVigil pinpointed the trouble spot, and Spirit IT personnel simply rerouted the traffic. "Our users never knew what happened," says Anderson. Without the software, passengers might have been unable to check in, leading to flight delays and cancellations. "We'd have experienced a number of catastrophic failures that would have had financial impact on the company."

Nevertheless, Anderson isn't completely satisfied with NetVigil. Fidelia is currently promoting a kind of virtualization technology that makes use of what it calls "containers." In theory, these allow IT administrators to manage network resources as they relate to services and applications. For example, administrators could view groupings that relate server and switch status to a particular application, such as a ticket sales or payroll program.

In practice, Spirit can't use this approach because it doesn't support many of its applications--both the off-the-shelf and the home-brewed varieties. Anderson says Fidelia is working to support them, but until it does he sees no reason to upgrade.

Anderson is also still seeking a cost-effective way to access more detail about what's happening inside an application. "Ideally, the monitor could tell me how fast an availability transaction is running inside the reservation system so that I could set a performance threshold or monitor the response of the credit card vendors to authorization transactions," he says.This would be useful in monitoring the company's reservation system, whose size and complexity makes it difficult to figure out at any moment what particular part of the application is using what set of resources, Anderson notes. "It might give us the ability to see when something is starting to run away, or is using too many resources," he explains.

Is your enterprise making innovative use of a networking technology or service that you'd like us to write about? Contact Jim Carr, an Aptos, CA-based freelance business and technology writer, at [email protected].

SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER
Stay informed! Sign up to get expert advice and insight delivered direct to your inbox

You May Also Like


More Insights