Virgin America’s application stack is open-sourced to the hilt, from spam filtering to load balancing to document management. Although open-source enterprise systems aren’t yet a mainstream technology choice, it makes good business sense because it enables the carrier to keep IT costs down. But because the company is growing and is now running at about 100 flights a day, there’s concern whether these free or cheap solutions will scale. “With spam filtering, when you’re getting a couple thousand emails a day, it’s no big deal. But when you start getting 20,000, can you handle that?” Maguire did scalability testing, but it’s something he must monitor as the company expands.
Maguire doesn’t fall for emerging technology just because it’s new. At Virgin America, new technology must either improve productivity or keep costs low. Successful deployment starts with making sure company leaders understand the business case and the risks associated with less-tested solutions. Maguire might begin by telling them in basic terms what load-balancing software Ultra Monkey actually does. He then explains his thinking behind the open-source option: It costs US$3,500 per server versus a non-open-source option at US$90,000 per box. Finally, Maguire gives Virgin’s leaders a risk assessment for each new system – from low to extremely high – and the criteria he used to make the assessment.
It’s amazing what a massively reduced price tag does for the business’s willingness to take a chance on new systems.
“They’ll at least give you a few months to try it out,” he says.
Maguire’s biggest aides when assessing the risks of emerging technology are also his biggest doubters – the business systems analysts. “They’re technically knowledgeable but also understand the business,” he says. “And they’re the most conservative because they know whether something is really going to meet business requirements. They don’t have time to goof around with products that don’t solve a business need.”
Case Study 2: Vail Resorts - The search for the next big thing
Vail Resorts’ Robert Urwiler and his team of 110 think of themselves as technology innovators because, as a ski resort operator, they don’t work in a tech-centric business. “All technology innovation comes through the IT team so that has to be part of our core competency,” says Urwiler, who previously worked at software firm Macromedia. “It doesn’t mean we’re always going to be the very first user of software but it does mean we’re always on the lookout.”
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