Aeroplan soars with new SOA solution from BEA

Air Canada’s reward program Aeroplan has caught onto the benefits of service-oriented architecture (SOA), and, armed with BEA middleware and a solid XML-based structure, foresees increased ease-of-use, better inventory checks, and smooth partner integration with improved interoperability and real-time capability.

For many years, Aeroplan’s Web site was run off the side of Air Canada’s own. But, eventually, it grew too large for its parent site, and had to spin out on its own in 2001.

“But as the experience became more and more distinct (from Air Canada), we needed to integrate with the back-end better,” said Aeroplan’s Remi Lafrance, director of technology for architecture, strategy and operations.

The situation was further complicated by the many partners that Aeroplan had acquired, including Reactivity (now owned by Cisco), which conducted the routing of its XML Web services, and Elastic Path’s cataloguing services. By the time outside vendors like Future Shop were proffering rewards in early 2004, Lafrance knew it was time for a new approach. Said Lafrance: “Obviously, the legacy network in an IBM environment suited Air Canada, but it wasn’t suitable experience for Aeroplan’s XML.”

Said Stuart Charlton, an enterprise architect with BEA Systems: “Dealing with the integration (of the new system) was a challenge, as they have quite a number of partners and information that has been haphazardly introduced, so we needed to try and get some order, so that getting on-board new customers and features would be easier.”

Aeroplan’s SOA approach taps into the current trend of businesses choosing proactive solutions, rather than baking in things retroactively, said Charlton. “Aeroplan really is a poster child of SOA implementations,” he said, pointing out the increasing tendency of airlines and airline reward programs to get on-board with SOA, including Air Miles, and BEA’s soon-to-be-announced partnership with another airline.

XML is another key part of Aeroplan’s IT strategy, said Lafrance, as it offers the comfort of strict standardization. “It offers direct connect with the hotel chains, so it’s scaleable from the hotels’ point of view,” said Lafrance.

This puts the company at the front lines of the trend, according to Charlton. “We use XML as the core information model. Even if something doesn’t use XML, we can make it look internally like XML,” he said.

Aeroplan went in for an enterprise service bus that uses the WebLogic Integration framework to manage the XML, and AquaLogic Commerce Services to unite the front and back ends through the bus and integrate the partners’ set-ups with Aeroplan’s. This implementation has been going on since November of last year, said Lafrance. (All that remains is the LDAP security migration, which is set to finish up this week, he said.) The implementation had a timeframe of eight to 12 months, but it took twice as long as expected, he said.

This partially stemmed from an outsourcing issue. “The challenge we face is with ongoing support and maintenance of the framework, as BEA doesn’t have a framework for ongoing professional service,” said Lafrance. Aeroplan called in IBM to act as ongoing support, but, he said, this still is challenging, as IBM will have to learn the complexity of Aeroplan’s system and get up-to-date enough to maintain a level of long-term security for the solution.

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