On Location: SkyWest Airlines' Desktop Management Project

The nation's largest independently owned regional carrier set out to find technology that could advance its reliability, on-time performance, growth management, IT staff productivity and cost control. Through a suite

August 12, 2005

21 Min Read
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In January 2004, SkyWest IT set out to find technology that could advance all five of its priorities: reliability, on-time performance, growth management, IT staff productivity and cost control. It decided to implement a comprehensive remote desktop-management package--Altiris' IT lifecycle management suite, which includes integrated modules for desktop management, software distribution, asset management, helpdesk operations and other administrative functions. Such a complex, integrated piece of software is no picnic to implement, but SkyWest staffers say it will pay off in the long run.

"What's really different about Altiris is that it doesn't just give you all those functions in a big list. It actually integrates them," says Simmons, Ursenbach's boss, who directs network operations at SkyWest. "So the combination of all those functions is not just two plus two, but more like three times three, because each function is helping every other function."

Vital StatsClick to Enlarge

Simmons points out that some suites are just bundles of different applications that don't necessarily work together. But with the Altiris products, the helpdesk app, for example, directly accesses trouble-ticket data from the central database and can gather data from the inventory/asset-management app so that the helpdesk operator can see the configuration and history of a machine. Or, in the case of software deployment, the application uses inventory data to figure out what each machine can handle.Indeed, since the lifecycle-management products were installed, most of SkyWest's IT staff--and many end users--say they've seen a difference in the way their systems operate day to day. Field technicians spend less time traveling to remote sites or packing PCs into crates for service. Helpdesk staffers have more information about end-user systems and can solve more problems on the first call. IT and finance people have a better grip on the airline's IT inventory and assets, and how they are deployed.

Childs says the software didn't start yielding returns until SkyWest fully deployed the suite, about six months after it was purchased. But more on that later.

On Time for Less

SkyWest is a little-known success story in the struggling airline industry. A small regional carrier that started by offering thrill rides in 1972, the company made its name by taking passengers to small Western cities not served by the large airlines. As big commercial airlines began to wrestle with financial problems in the 1990s--and were pinned to the mat following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks--they began to outsource more of their regional traffic to SkyWest, which has one of the best on-time records of any regional airline and a cost model that lets it make those flights more cheaply than its larger counterparts. Today, SkyWest is a primary contractor for both Delta Air Lines and United Airlines in the western United States, logging more than 5.5 billion passenger miles and generating nearly $82 million in profit in 2004.

To keep those contracts, however, SkyWest must not only keep its safety and on-time records intact, but also expand its reach while holding down expenses. If its costs creep up too far, Delta and United might find a new contractor, or choose to fly the routes themselves. So though safety and reliability are crucial to the passenger--and those elements always come first--cost-efficiency and control are crucial to the life of the business."There's a paradigm in business that there's an inverse relationship between low cost and high performance, that you have to sacrifice one in order to achieve the other," Childs says. "We're trying to instill a philosophy in our people and our customers that you can achieve both of those objectives at the same time. We're doing it, and companies like Southwest Airlines are doing it, too."

But breaking business paradigms presents major challenges for SkyWest IT. Some IT strategists might solve the reliability problem by overprovisioning the infrastructure, but SkyWest simply cannot afford to buy technology it isn't sure it will use. Other IT experts might control costs by cutting corners, but when your job is to keep thousands of passengers safe every day, you can't afford to take risks.

So what's the answer? SkyWest's solution, Childs says, is automation. As it grows, the airline is looking to automate every process. Automation can make business processes faster and more accurate while keeping human costs low, he says. Computers play a key role in this strategy, automating everything from wireless access to maintenance manuals to training of pilots and crew.

Altiris' lifecycle-management products, which automate many desktop- and infrastructure-management tasks, fit nicely into the SkyWest strategy, Simmons says.

"It's helping to streamline a lot of things that we used to do manually, which means that it's not only making us faster and more productive in IT, but it's also cutting our costs," he says. While the size of SkyWest's network has nearly doubled in the past four years, its IT support group has added only four people, bringing the number to 32. "That's about 300 users per [IT] person, and the Altiris technology is one big reason why we can keep that number high."Just a couple of years ago, SkyWest's desktop-management picture was chaotic. The airline was doing much of its PC maintenance and upgrading using the sneakernet method, and its IT inventory was monitored mainly through Track-IT, an inexpensive inventory and helpdesk tool best suited for small businesses ( click here for more on that application). Much of SkyWest's PC maintenance was done through a combination of phone calls, e-mail messages, air freight, yellow stickies and visits by beleaguered field technicians.

"At that point, we basically had two choices: Send a technician out to the site or ship the machine back to St. George for maintenance," Simmons says. "If we sent someone out, it might cost us hundreds of dollars in travel, and the technician would be out of the office for that time. If we shipped the PC back to St. George, the remote site would be without a machine for three or four days, and some of those sites only have a couple of PCs to begin with."

SkyWest's already-leaky PC maintenance process was broken wide open in 2004, when the Blaster virus took most of the airline's PCs offline, including about 70 percent of the flight operations dispatch center. "If the weather conditions had been worse that day, we could've been in real trouble," Ursenbach says.

As it was, the airline had to send out a SWAT team that included Simmons and Ursenbach to make on-site repairs to each remote PC using CDs and floppy disks. Some IT staffers visited as many as seven cities in a 48-hour period, and it was nearly two weeks before all of the affected machines were cleaned up. At that point, Simmons says, the IT team knew that cost-justifying a better remote desktop-management system wouldn't be too tough.

Coincidentally, just a few hours before the virus strike, Altiris salespeople had made a presentation to SkyWest IT, courtesy of Altiris' partnership with Dell Computer, the airline's main PC supplier. After the dust settled from the virus explosion, SkyWest's IT people took a cursory look at some of the other desktop-management tools on the market, but they had already been briefed on the IT lifecycle-management suite components, and they knew that the software had been certified to work with the Dell environment. Rather than go through a long RFI/RFP process, SkyWest's IT brain trust decided to go directly to Altiris.Unfortunately, the quick purchase decision didn't speed the implementation. More than six months after getting the suite in the door, SkyWest still hadn't activated it--in fact, only about 400 of its PCs even had the client software. Like many other companies before it, the airline had learned a hard lesson: Pervasive IT management systems seldom work out of the box.

"The Altiris suite is very complex," Simmons says. "We didn't get as much help up front as we should have, in both implementation and training. That's the one thing I would change if I had it to do over again."

Deployment Delay

The problem with large-scale, multifaceted management systems is that they usually must be populated with an enterprise's full "knowledge store" of IT information before they'll be useful. Although many desktop-management suites can perform autodiscovery of remote PCs and other systems, there's typically a wide spectrum of other information, including PC images, user profiles, lease and/or purchase information, software license data and maintenance histories, that must be compiled and imported before the management system can work to its full potential. That process can be even more challenging with an environment such as Altiris' multiproduct suite, where diverse yet highly integrated applications depend on one another for accurate data and functionality.

In addition, most management applications define management information differently from the enterprises that buy them. It took SkyWest a while to do discovery, because Altiris has a specific way to define a group of managed objects, Simmons says. Deploying meant learning how to do Altiris "collections," and though they had taken some classes as part of the initial purchase, most of SkyWest's IT people didn't have the required knowledge.The combination of the suite's complexity and not enough skilled SkyWest technicians proved too much for the airline, and the project was back-burnered for six months while IT staffers tried to get their arms around it. The airline did bring in a consultant for a week when it finally began the implementation, but two of those days were wasted pushing the Altiris client out to hundreds of remote PCs by way of the slow 128-Kbps links that dominate SkyWest's bargain-basement network.

"One of the ways we save money is by keeping our WAN costs low," Simmons says. "We buy only the bandwidth we need, and it's in use almost 24 hours a day. That makes it tough to deploy a relatively thick client like Altiris." The airline solved the problem by using bandwidth-throttling technology to send out the client slowly, in pieces, to small groups of PCs during off hours. Even then, the deployment did not go well: The Altiris 5.5 client knocked some of SkyWest's flight-information display PCs--the ones that let you see arrivals and departures at the airport--offline, Simmons recalls. Ursenbach and his team tracked the problem to a conflict between COM and Microsoft's IIS that didn't show up in the initial deployment testing because the information display PCs have a configuration different from that of SkyWest's other desktops. The problem was repaired quickly and the clients finally reached all remote systems.

Even after the Altiris suite was configured and the clients deployed, SkyWest's IT department still had trouble learning to use it. "Most of our training up to that point had been about the implementation, rather than best practices for taking advantage of all the features," Simmons says. "We should have done another round of training after we had it installed."

Although its initial steps were rocky, SkyWest's IT organization--and its end users--now say it was worth the trouble. The technology's most critical impact has been in system availability, where Altiris provides tools for trouble ticketing, remote diagnosis and helpdesk operations. By automating some of these functions, SkyWest has improved its ability to do remote maintenance, problem diagnosis and software upgrades, improving uptime in its 130 satellite locations.

"I've got a picture of what I've done and what I still need to do," says Miles Funk, supervisor of field services at SkyWest, who manages the company's small group of field technicians. "It's helped us cut down on travel time, and it's made it easier to schedule the trips we have to take for remote maintenance. I'm doing a lot less calling of technicians at 9:30 p.m. to tell them they have to be on a plane for a remote office at 5 the next morning."The key to building that picture is Altiris' trouble-ticketing system, which provides a central repository for information on problem calls and potential trouble detected by automated systems. SkyWest has established a central database of trouble tickets that can be viewed and updated by IT staff in St. George, field service reps at remote sites and SkyWest's helpdesk.

"We can get a lot more issues resolved via phone than we used to," says Lori Hunt, director of Delta Connection and one of the execs managing SkyWest's partnerships with Delta and United. "That's so important because our partners expect us to deliver a reliable product. If our technology is iffy, we can't remain competitive."

Before using the Altiris products, SkyWest did have limited remote-control and trouble-ticketing capabilities through Track-IT, but the airline found these functions rudimentary and not well-integrated for an organization of its size. With Altiris, the carrier has created a multitiered escalation process that lets helpdesk staffers immediately route complex problems to those best-equipped to solve them. In addition, SkyWest has a page on its intranet that lets end users report problems without calling the helpdesk. The result of these new capabilities: less traffic at the helpdesk, a higher rate of first-tier problem resolution, shorter problem escalation times and a faster, higher overall rate of trouble repair (see "Topflight Desktop Management").

The desktop-management suite's software-deployment capabilities also are improving SkyWest's PC uptime and end-user productivity. In the past, a companywide software upgrade often meant asking remote users to ship their PCs to St. George in batches, or worse, sending technicians out to each remote site to do the job by hand. "It was the worst feeling to have IT come and take my laptop away," Childs recalls. "There were just certain things I couldn't do until that upgrade was done."

Now SkyWest IT can deploy software, even homegrown applications, on a common platform. Instead of sending out new releases, upgrades or patches in batches of 25 or 30, SkyWest can do a companywide software upgrade in a single night. About 98 percent of installs are successful on the first try, says Lynn Radmall, one of the system engineers who helped implement the Altiris software.Although SkyWest is using the lifecycle-management products for software deployment, it isn't using the software-packaging capabilities Altiris purchased from Wise Technologies two years ago. Packaging technology would let SkyWest IT adapt and customize software for all its users or small groups and check for application conflicts before deployment. The airline has procured a packaging server and is laying out plans for a full-blown packaging process, but it probably won't be implemented until next year. Simmons and his applications-development counterpart, Duane Tanner, are looking at Altiris' Wise line of packaging tools, but they may choose to implement a simple packaging server and continue to use Microsoft Windows Installer as the underlying platform. The Wise approach would be more expensive, but it offers the added benefits of testing and conflict-resolution features, as well as direct integration with Altiris' software-deployment tools.

In addition to improving system availability and uptime, the Altiris suite is helping SkyWest meet its goal of improving cost efficiency by providing a broad range of asset- and inventory-management capabilities. Most desktop-management suites offer the means to discover remote machines and store memory and configuration data about them in a common database. But unlike simple PC-inventory applications, the Altiris suite also can collect information about software licenses in use on those machines, and it can meter that software to determine whether it is being used (for a rundown of desktop-management features, check out Desktop Management Suites: How Suite it Is).

"In a lot of ways, seeing how the PC is being used is even more valuable to us than being able to troubleshoot it remotely," Ursenbach says. "It allows us to manage people as well as machines. We can see when they're not using software, and we can pull it and use that license somewhere else. We can squash executables that aren't approved or might cause a problem. We can be more proactive."

Remote desktop management also helps SkyWest track its IT investments, so that both the IT department and SkyWest's financial people can do inventory for maintenance or depreciation at tax time. In some cases, remote sites are required to buy non-Dell machines to fit in with the systems around them, so the asset-management tool helps SkyWest see the full range of PCs on its desktop palette.

All these capabilities--trouble ticketing, remote diagnosis, helpdesk, software deployment, software license management and asset management--could have been purchased as point products, but SkyWest has found they work better as an integrated package, Simmons says.For example, SkyWest has been able to merge data from UltiPro, its human resources application, and Microsoft Active Directory so that information about the computer, its user and the user's phone number are all linked, Simmons says. That means when a user calls in to the helpdesk, the IT staffer can right-click on the asset and see not only configuration data, but also the full history of the machine.

The SkyWest IT department also uses the system to track end-user behavior and flag for the user's manager any dangerous or unauthorized activity, Simmons says. And the integrated applications help SkyWest IT view and control end-user access to sensitive information, a key requirement of the Sarbanes-Oxley regulations.

So what did SkyWest pay for all these capabilities? The total cost for software and initial training was about $88,000, according to Childs. SkyWest bought 1,200 clients, at about $50 per seat, and 15 concurrent administrator licenses to the tune of $20,000. The remaining $8,000 went to the consultant for a week's time during the initial deployment. The licenses must be renewed next year.

If you discount the cost of SkyWest's IT labor to implement the software, the ROI of the Altiris suite is fast. Simmons estimates that the company has cut by 90 percent the travel costs for field technicians and air freight charges for returned PCs. Overall system uptime has increased by about 20 percent.

However, you can't just discount implementation costs. Even after SkyWest got up to speed with the configuration and use of the Altiris software, it took a good month to do the deployment, Simmons says. Such "soft costs" can have a profound effect on ROI.And SkyWest's desktop-management project, like most such implementations, will never be completely finished. The airline already is considering a number of enhancements. Besides the packaging server, for example, Altiris offers a suite of products for server management, but SkyWest hasn't decided whether to move in that direction. The server-management tools are much more expensive than the desktop tools, and they present a new round of implementation challenges, but they can be integrated with the desktop technology, which would give SkyWest a more complete picture of its IT infrastructure.

In the near term, SkyWest will focus on making better use of the desktop-management tools it owns, both for troubleshooting problems and for doing more proactive and preventative management tasks. "We're really still learning about Altiris and what it can do for us," Simmons says. "It's made a big difference here so far, but there are a lot of capabilities that we're not fully using. It's like anything else: You get better at it as you go along."

Tim Wilson is Network Computing's editor, business technology. His background includes four years as an IT industry analyst and more than 14 years as a journalist specializing in networking technology. Write to him at [email protected].

On Location: Series 8Our eighth "On Location" documentary-style case study takes us to scenic St. George, nestled in the southwest corner of Utah, population about 60,000. St. George is home to the headquarters of SkyWest Airlines, the nation's largest independently owned regional carrier, yet it is 300 miles to the closest major hub, Salt Lake City. As the airline grew, it became clear that the sneakernet method of desktop management would no longer fly.

So, the 32-person IT group went looking for a better way. What it settled on was Altiris' IT lifecycle-management products, which include modules for desktop and asset management, software distribution and helpdesk operations. In "Ground Control," we outline how SkyWest came to choose remote desktop management as a priority--with airlines working on razor-thin margins, ROI was a deciding factor, and Altiris has performed nicely in that respect. In "Topflight Desktop Management," we examine the technical headaches--as well as the rewards--involved in using remote desktop management to oversee 1,500 PCs across 80 WANs spanning the United States. One big perk: Getting to stay in St. George, where the average commute is 14.4 minutes and the average temperature never dips below 41.7 degrees. Talk about technology enabling quality of life!

Visit our On Location home page at for more on this and previous stories.

'On Location' Packages:

» American Airlines Center, Wi-Fi and managed wireless» The Chicago Tribune, server consolidation

» University of Florida, P2P blocking

» U.S. Navy, knowledge management

» McCarran International Airport, Las Vegas, common-use terminal equipment

» Children's Hospital Boston, ERP» Life Time Fitness, Web services

You might wonder why a $1.2 billion regional airline that employs more than 8,000 commercial aviation professionals is headquartered in St. George, Utah, more than 300 miles from the closest major airport hub. The reason is simple: SkyWest's founders and employees like it there.

Like Sam Walton, who has kept his Wal-Mart empire headquartered in Bentonville, Ark., SkyWest founder Ralph Atkin and his nephew, Jerry, have spent most of their lives in St. George, watching it grow with the company. There is a small regional airport, where Atkin housed his first few airplanes, and it's just an hour's flight from Salt Lake City, where SkyWest maintains its crew-training and jet-maintenance facilities.

"We really like living in St. George," says Kevin Simmons, director of IT support. Simmons cites the great scenery--you can see Zion National Park from the SkyWest building--and quality of life. "I live so close to the office that I can go home for lunch when I want to," he says. "Being this far from a hub creates some interesting IT challenges, but it really is a great place to live and work."

Remote-management technologies and a redundant high-speed connection have helped stave off the need to move SkyWest's IT center to Salt Lake City, a move that has been considered, and rejected, several times."Altiris allows us to keep our headquarters in St. George, because we can manage all of our systems remotely," says Jim Jensen, SkyWest's vice president of IT. "As long as we can accomplish the same functions in St. George as we could in Salt Lake or any other hub city, there's no reason for us to leave."

Kevin Simmons
Director of IT Support

At Work: Responsible for managing PCs, servers, voice and data networks, and IT engineering

At Home: 44 years old. Married, five children. Hobbies: Golf, family outings, water sportsAlma Mater: Utah State; B.A. in finance

HOW HE GOT HERE: 2000 to present: Director of IT support, SkyWest Airlines

1992 to 2000: Vice president of IT, USU Community Credit Union

MOUTHING OFF: Best part of implementing a desktop-management suite: "Control."

Worst part: "Getting the essential parts up and running."Greatest business challenge: "Staying ahead of our business partners when it comes to technology."

Worst moment of downtime in my career: "We had a fiber cut last year that cut off a big part of our network. That was really rough."

Funniest comment ever heard from an end user: "I had an employee tell me that after we restricted Internet access and she couldn't get onto the Victoria's Secret site anymore, her PC was running a lot slower."

Most misunderstood part of my job: "That it's purely a technical job. Others don't understand that there are so many business and people issues that we deal with."

If I only had a bigger IT budget, I would: "Put in a bigger SAN and more WAN bandwidth."If I had the Altiris project to do over again, I would: "Spend more money on the initial implementation, more time in training and more help in getting started."

My dream job: "Professional golfer."

Favorite movie: "Christmas Vacation."

Favorite sports team: "The 1985 Boston Celtics."

Favorite gadget: "My BlackBerry."

Josh Ursenbach
Manager of Systems Engineering

At Work: Responsible for managing desktop images, hardware, network infrastructure, storage and wireless technology

At Home: 26 years old. Married, one child. Hobbies: computer gamesAlma Mater: No college

HOW HE GOT HERE: 2001 to present: Manager of systems engineering, SkyWest Airlines

1998 to 2001: Service technician for a heating and air conditioning company

MOUTHING OFF: Best part of implementing a desktop-management suite: "Reports--we have a whole lot more information than we had before."

Greatest business challenge: "Scheduling. In an airline, where you're operating just about 24 hours a day, it can be really tough."Funniest comment ever heard from an end user: "An employee called from a hotel in another city, wondering why he couldn't get onto our [local] wireless network at headquarters."

Most misunderstood part of my job: "I don't think a lot of people understand how dependent we are on our IT infrastructure."

If I only had a bigger IT budget, I would: "Spend some time getting our Salt Lake City data center right."

If I had the Altiris project to do over again, I would: "Spend more time at the beginning getting it configured and implemented."

My dream job: "High-performance engine design."When I retire, I will: "Build hot rods."

Thing I love most about flying: "It saves so much time."

Thing I hate most about flying: "Bad weather."

Favorite movie: "Die Hard."

Favorite sports team: "The Utah Jazz."0

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