SOA Package on Baseline Outlines the Plan from Aeroplan

All buzzwords aside, companies really want something that will work with their business model and manage to do so at a cost which allows a reasonable chance of reaching profitably goals. In a comprehensive editorial package of articles and related resources about Service Oriented Architecture in Ziff Davis’ Baseline Magazine on July 12th 2007, David F. Carr explores Aeroplan’s use of open source and standards-based components – including Elastic Path – in their complicated business scenario. Carr’s report, “Improving Ties to Business Partners” explains Aeroplan’s modus operandi, “Aeroplan “sells” mileage credits to partners, such as credit card issuers—who then offer them as rewards to customers. These customers can trade credits for air travel, car rentals and merchandise. SOA enables Aeroplan and its partners to exchange customer and other data in legacy systems to make the rewards program work.”

Last year, we published a case study about Aeroplan‘s implementation of Elastic Path and, in the process of writing the report, I learned a lot about the wide-ranging possibilities within ecommerce. While examining Aeroplan’s project, I focused my attention on the community building aspects of ecommerce – or the art of selling based on relationships. What I mean is … ecommerce “stores” are easily viewed as virtual representations of their brick and mortar colleagues. Somewhere, (one could assume) the storeowner has an inventory of stuff taking up space and awaiting a situation in which to put on racks and deliver to the customer. However, Aeroplan is an ecommerce storefront indirectly selling non-physical and physical products using a virtual “currency” at a virtual storefront. As such, the challenges Aeroplan face are rather different than a (dare I say traditional?) “vanilla” retailer.

Rather than the primary mission being getting people to the site, then presenting them with the goods they seek, and finally, providing a barrier-free(ish) path to checkout, Aeroplan’s challenge is to educate (both existing and new) members about the myriad ways to spend their accumulated currency then present the choices in a compelling manner so members redeem their points/miles/ducats for services and goods which will please them andmaintain their loyalty for future purchases from an increasing kaleidoscope of partners. It seems Aeroplan’s challenge is to tactfully and efficiently facilitate these “cashless” transactions for the mutual benefit of all parties. No big deal right? No inventory means no warehousing, no frantic calls to suppliers for shipping tracking numbers and no annoyed customers who “were counting on that item for their Mom’s birthday.”Instead, Aeroplan embraces the challenge of managing these multi-party relationships tactfully and artfully. These varied relationships exist with the Members collecting points (with varying levels of passion from incidental to traders), the “Point Vendor” partners who offer points (AKA miles) as an incentive and include financial institutions, retailers, real estate agents, movers, parking lots and car rentals and, oh yeah, … airlines, as well as “Point Spending” partners who include hotels, retailers of every stripe plus indulgences like personal chefs or the aforementioned spa experiences. In this case, Aeroplan needed to do something to reduce the points customers were holding onto and this was the mandate when they spun off from parent Air Canada. Carr explains this situation thusly,

“As member account balances swelled, Aeroplan needed to provide alternative ways of allowing members to use mileage credits beyond the limited number of flights available from Air Canada. Otherwise, there would be too many miles chasing too few seats—a common complaint about frequent-flier programs —and way too many frustrated members. Hence, it established loyalty-reward partnerships.”

OK enough background already! How’d they do it? It doesn’t sound easy, in fact it sounds rather complex, especially when interacting with many disparate partners and not-necessarily-cutting-edgetravel industry legacy systems. Carr quotes André Hébert, Aeroplan’s vice president of technology and e-business, “If you look at the Aeroplan Web site today, it’s like a combination of Expedia and a retail store Web site so it’s very complex.” In short, Aeroplan sorted out the complexity by making a significant transition from existing systems to a Service Oriented Architecture using Open Source technologies including Linux, Apache (web server), My SQL (database) and Elastic Path (ecommerce) and using XML (eXtensible markup language) to pass data from system to system including the existing mainframes.

From Carr: Technologically, this required an evolution from the mainframe-based system Air Canada had created, designed solely to handle flight rewards, to a new architecture that retained the mainframe as a back-end transaction engine but layered on capabilities for interacting with business partners and consumers more flexibly.

Indeed, with the re-engineering, Aeroplan found themselves on the forefront of a fundamental shift in thinking about enterprise technology ecosystems – moving away from the “one systems does it all” idea towards web services approach of assembling a collection of components which understand each other and have the ability to exchange data using accepted standards. Carr explains, “… the standard way of accomplishing that, using Internet technologies, is with Web services—the family of standards and specifications for invoking functions on remote computers with messages formatted in XML.” With a plan in mind, Aeroplan needed a way to get products to sell andprovide a way to sell them. This started with a relationship with a employee-incentive product vendor who managed sales Aeroplan’s members – for starters.

From Carr: When the system went live in early 2004, Aeroplan wanted to offer non-travel rewards but didn’t have its own catalog of merchandise to offer. … To drive more of that business through its own Web site {instead of third-party product vendor Maritz’s}, Aeroplan needed a more capable Web site and a more sophisticated level of Web services integration with its partners.

More capable, more sophisticated? Enter Elastic Path. Carr and Aeroplan’s Lafrance break down the some primary advantages succinctly saying,

E-commerce software vendor Elastic Path provided software to manage the catalog of merchandise Aeroplan would be offering as an alternative to flight rewards. Lafrance says he was attracted to the product because of its emphasis on leveraging open-source technologies, which Aeroplan wanted to use where practical to hold down expenses. Although Elastic Path itself is not open source in the sense of making its source code freely available, it shares source code with its clients under a commercial license, and it incorporates a variety of open-source technologies such as the Apache Lucene search engine. Aeroplan also takes advantage of Elastic Path’s support for the open-source MySQL database to store catalog content.

Bringing it all together required the many pieces to “get along” reliably plus be robust enough to manage a high volume of transactions efficiently. For this, Aeroplan stuck to their strategy of, “small pieces loosely joined” (my words, not theirs) by finding specialized tools to perform specific functions – without getting tied down with proprietary systems, stifling licensing costs and recurring subscription fees. Carr’s article quotes Hébert on the economic advantages as well as the technical benefits of their strategy.

“We would probably end up paying a few million more in software licenses if not for our use of open source,” Hébert says. Aeroplan also takes advantage of Apache Tomcat to execute Java code running on its Web servers, rather than use a commercial application server on the Web front end. Heavy-duty processing for Java applications, including the Elastic Path and OpenJaw software, is managed within the integration framework provided by BEA Systems’ WebLogic platform.

Works well and cost-efficient equals “Great Success!” Now, they’ve found other hospitality companies heading in a similar direction – something Aeroplan is ready to leverage – easily.

In January 2007, Best Western became the first hotel chain to support that direct-connect XML interface to its reservations systems, and Lafrance hopes other hotel partners will follow. “For us to add another hotel is no big deal, and most hotels are implementing the OTA standards anyway,” he says, referring to the OpenTravel Alliance, an industry standards group.

Any enterprise, no matter whether the goods are physical or virtual, can follow this strategy of using specialized and open components to reliably pass data between partners, members and vendors to produce a highly scalable, infinitely customizable and cost-effective architecture. Carr sums up Aeroplan’s strategy saying, “Aeroplan’s experience shows the value to any business of the SOA approach, now widely embraced as a more flexible and adaptable way to build complex enterprise systems.” Indeed, bundle specialized tools for efficiency and profit – leaving more time for fun. More from Baseline: Aeroplan Takes off – architecture diagram SOA: What You Need to Know The SOA Payoff Calculator: Reaping Benefits From SOA


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