Monolithic legacy airline management systems can make it difficult for carriers to deliver innovative mobile solutions for their customers. With all the important data locked up in software that is hard to access, it makes life difficult for those who want to be creative with that data. So it’s always interesting to take the time to talk with an airline that, despite having what the IT industry calls “technical debt”, is managing to deliver valuable solutions.
Ryanair is Europe’s biggest airline in terms of passengers carried. With 72 bases and 1,600 daily flights to 190 European destinations, the complexities around creating compelling mobile applications for users that cross geographies and operational situations are significant. The Irish ULCC is now actually on the third generation of its mobile application, said Ryanair lead developer Vlad Atanasov, who shared some detail about the airline’s approach to “mobile enabling” all those legacy systems.
Atanasov is up front in admitting that core passenger management systems pose a challenge when it comes to building creative solutions. Ryanair has a strategy to fix the core, which is a pragmatic solution to a seemingly intractable problem: there is little chance of completely moving those systems en masse. The airline has built a series of microservices which sit in front of that monolithic infrastructure. Individual operation functions that are handled by the core system have a corresponding microservice which, on the one hand, can talk to the core system but which also have the ability to integrate with external systems by way of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs).
“This microservices approach, in addition with a NoSQL database [NoSQL is a modern approach towards databases that does away with rigid rows and columns and is well suited to less structured data] is very good for resource efficiency,” Atanasov tells RGN. “It is also far easier to maintain a system when you break it into multiple components. Building a microservices wrapper around the passenger management system makes us more able to innovate with mobile applications.”
Given that most of Ryanair’s customers ticket and check-in either via the Ryanair website or mobile application (the airline also has relationships with three GDS platforms – Amadeus, Sabre and Travelport), increasing the ability of the company to customize applications is a key driver. Previous versions of Ryanair’s mobile applications had seen a website essentially wrapped around the mobile app in the case of the first cut, while the second generation app used client/server technology, a sub-optimal choice for reasons we shall return to.
The current generation of Ryanair’s app was built on an interesting technology platform, Couchbase. Atanasov points to two key benefits that Couchbase brought the company. First, CouchBase Lite is a lightweight database that sits on users’ mobile devices. It provides for static data (seating layouts, for example) to be stored on the device, rather than needing to be downloaded every time. Only dynamic data (loading details, perhaps) get downloaded. In a setting where passengers will be either offline completely, or subject to expensive roaming charges, this approach is beneficial. Add to that Couchbase Sync – an internet-facing cloud component that synchronizes data between the mobile device and the cloud – and you have for a platform that enables mobile app development that isn’t unduly constrained by erratic connectivity.
Atanasov sees Ryanair as being on an iterative journey when it comes to mobile, and he expressed an interest in changing approaches to mobile apps whereby organizations like Ryanair deliver very small “micro apps” for very specific situations and use cases. “Every application should be a very specific instrument and the rise of ready integration between mobile apps through technology from Google and others will make it easier for smaller apps to do one task but interconnect with other apps,” he says.
Ryanair currently has some four million customers using the latest version of its applications, while customers in some countries still use the second generation app. Atanasov says Ryanair has yet to implement 100 percent of the functionality on the new app and some regulatory requirements from countries mean that the app isn’t able to be used in those jurisdictions.