Brona Kernan, IT director at Ryanair, The Information Age Interview

About the company

Ryanair is Europe’s second largest budget airline, operating 90,000 flights and carrying nine million passengers a year. Despite a downturn in the airline business as a whole, the company has consistently beat profit expectations and increased customer numbers.

One of the ways Ryanair can continue to slash costs and improve its profit margins is by consolidating its IT resources. Although more than 90% of its passengers book their flights over the Internet, the company employs just 12 IT staff to manage both web site uptime and performance and Ryanair’s corporate IT infrastructure.

In January 2002, Ryanair introduced a number of new routes across Europe and has since expanded its offices outside Ireland and the UK to several European cities. Consequently, Ryanair’s IT team often has to manage problems remotely and needs to be available on a 24×7 basis in case problems arise that could affect schedules or aircraft safety.

Information Age (IA): Ryanair carries some 9 million passengers a year, 90% of whom book their tickets over the Internet. Simply managing this volume of online traffic must be a significant challenge in itself. How does the company cope with managing its own corporate IT infrastructure at the same time?

Brona Kernan (BK): At Ryanair, we have three corporate offices and 71 other sites, including all the airports that we fly to. These all sit on our corporate IT network. One of the key challenges is the security of this network, because it is so dispersed, going into airports all over Europe. It’s a highly secure network.

Now we find ourselves in the position where we have a lot of mission-critical systems. This year we started on a review of the IT infrastructure at our corporate head office, and decided we needed a major upgrade to meet the high-availability requirements of these systems.

IA: Why did you choose to standardise your infrastructure on Dell and EMC, above other vendors?

BK: Ryanair has long been a purchaser of Dell equipment. It started back in 1996 with desktop PCs. At the time, we perceived Dell as a very similar organisation to Ryanair, and I’d say we’ve probably grown up together. As Ryanair started to grow – in 1996 we were not a very large airline – Dell began to move into the server market.

So this year, after reviewing our requirements across our corporate offices and discovering we needed to invest in a more mission-critical [storage] infrastructure to support our core applications, we went out to the marketplace and discovered that Dell had also moved into this arena. As opposed to building their own storage systems, they’d done what they always do – gone out and found the best guys in the market and partnered with them, [in this case] with EMC. We were doing a Windows 2000 upgrade across all our corporate offices, updating our core file-and-print, Exchange server infrastructure. We had a look at how the Dell/EMC offering would support this and we liked it.

We’re very similar to Dell – we match each other culturally. We would be very dissimilar to an organisation like HP, who we’ve used in the past to support mission-critical applications. We don’t like the fact that you can’t talk directly to them, that you have to go through a reseller channel. We don’t like the fact that they don’t take direct responsibility for the sale. We signed the deal [with Dell and EMC] in February 2002, and have been migrating over to that platform over the past few months.

IA: A recent survey of IT decision-makers in the UK found that more and more organisations are looking to form more flexible, multi-vendor contracts, especially in big hardware deals, as this forces suppliers to find ways to add value in order to differentiate themselves. Why has Ryanair chosen a fixed, five-year contract with just two suppliers?

BK: We still use other vendors. We still have a number of HP servers running a few of our mission critical applications – that is, our flight operation system, our engineering system, which monitors everything to do with aircraft maintenance and parts, and our flight scheduling system. These are all very much 24×7 systems. The Dell/EMC hardware, our storage area network – that runs all our back-office systems. So we still have a ‘healthy tension’ in our vendor relationships, as I like to call it. We still have a balance.

IA: It has taken a number of years for organisations to take the concept of hosting mission-critical applications on Windows-on-Intel platforms seriously. Did you have any misgivings about how well this type of infrastructure might serve Ryanair’s needs?

BK: Not really. We had already been working on a Windows-on-Intel platform. What we did not have were failover, clustering-type capabilities, so we wanted to improve on that. We have a lot of experience of running a Windows/Intel environment on Dell kit. We did have to consider the fact that this was a new space for Dell, but we also have a lot of experience with the company. Our web site has run on Dell servers since we launched it in January 2000, so we weren’t that concerned that they wouldn’t be able to scale to the kind of clusters we needed to run the corporate side of our IT operation.

IA: One of the key things this investment has enabled Ryanair to do is to consolidate its servers and storage across the organisation. Why did Ryanair feel this was a necessary strategy?

BK: One of the reasons we opted to invest in a storage area network (SAN) was that, like many organisations which grow and throw a lot of servers into their infrastructure, we found that we had a lot of disk all over the place – a lot of separate back-up, separate tape systems – all products of growth.

This year, a lot of our hardware was coming to the end of its life and this gave us a chance to sweep a new broom through our infrastructure and consolidate our storage. Like a lot of organisations, we’d have one server with loads of spare disk capacity and another running out, and wouldn’t be able to take a disk out of one and move it to the other.

Consolidation enables us to allocate space more appropriately, as well as allow all those servers to have the kind of high availability that an EMC system has built into it. Better utilising these disks, as well as moving systems onto a much more high-availability platform, were the main aims of the project. As we become a more 24×7 operation, we really can’t afford downtime.

IA: You say that Ryanair is becoming a “more 24×7 operation”. What factors in the company’s growth have influenced that, and how are you adapting your hardware infrastructure to support it?

BK: One of the biggest differences is that we are now based at a number of destinations in continental Europe, so I have staff based within airports across Europe. Before, Ryanair was very much based in Ireland or the UK and everyone lived and worked there. So now we have to deal with time zones; for example – the first shift starts at 5am, or 4am our time at the European airports, and the last flights come back into the UK at midnight, so the time window [when we are not operating flights] has gone down to a few hours. And that window is when the engineers start work on the planes, so we have engineers working on aircraft through the night who are dependent on our systems being up and running to provide status reports or whatever. So we’re really a 24×7 operation, and the growth of our fleet – and the number of destinations we fly to – has really made that more critical.

Since we began, we’ve taken the view that, when we build something, we’re very much about scalability. So the systems that run our applications are built and designed to be scalable. We built an IP [Internet Protocol] network across Europe in 1999 and that’s scalable – we just add new destinations to the network as they come on.

But until this year, our corporate infrastructure was never designed in this way – it’s been a case of add another disk, add another server. So we’ve redesigned it to be scalable so that if we run out of disk, we can add more disks to the SAN, or if we’re running out of [processing] power, we can simply add another server to the cluster. It was the ‘last plank’ in making our computing infrastructure more scalable.

IA: Finally, can you sum up what have been the key benefits of your consolidation initiative so far?

BK: It’s very much a Ryanair concept – we use IT as an enabler that helps the business to grow. The business is growing at 20% a year, but [the IT department] is not growing at the same rate. This kind of consolidation has meant that I can probably keep the same level of resources managing our corporate network for the next couple of years. It’s allowed us to grow, while keeping our IT resources slim.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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