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CASE STUDY: Helvetic goes from a fully managed system to a SaaS solution
Author: Christian Suhner, Chief Technology Officer, HelveticSubscribe
Christian Suhner, Chief Technology Officer, Helvetic shares Helvetic’s journey to a fully modern and capable MRO systemin AMOS
I want to share with readers the migration of Helvetic’s managed AMOS system from Swiss AviationSoftware (Swiss-AS) to the latest SaaS (Software as a Service) version of the solution. One reason to share is that it was a really good migration, for which Swiss-AS can take a lot of credit. Our experience was a well-organized migration and a use case for how it should work. This case study will be about the experience of a small airline and the reasons why we think that this move was a good step: I hope that it might be of interest to readers who will, perhaps, face similar challenges in the future. We’ll cover the whole program.
We’ll look at the reasons behind the change and what were the management objectives, what did we want to achieve from the change and then the execution of the migration project, things like the timeline, challenges encountered and resolved, coordination with Swiss-AS, etc. We’ll also consider how the responsibilities between Swiss-AS and Helvetic changed during the program. Positive impacts such as cost savings, operational improvements and more will be covered as well as downsides like the impact on independence, aligning with Swiss-AS resources and more. Finally, in the summary, we’ll ask was the target set by management achieved?
But let’s begin by looking at Helvetic Airways.
As a Zurich based regional carrier with 18 aircraft, Helvetic flies twelve second generation Embraer E190-E2 and E195-E2 plus six E190 first generation. At the time of writing, there were 480 employees of which 370 were flying crews, pilots and cabin attendants, 35 back-office staff and 75 employees engaged in maintenance. We have had our own Part 145 organization for more than ten years. Helvetic is based in Zurich where the airline has hangar space and conducts line operations and some line maintenance as well as some degree of base maintenance by our own maintenance team. For more than ten years, Helvetic has been using AMOS from Swiss AviationSoftware as our maintenance software.
As the numbers show, Helvetic is quite a lean organization with just 35 back-office staff including a small IT department of just five people managing the whole of the airline’s IT environment. We have a three-pillar business strategy with the biggest pillar being ACMI/wet lease flights: last summer, thirteen Helvetic aircraft were flying out of Zurich with flights operated by us but on behalf of Swiss International Airlines. Besides that, there is a small charter flight business and, during the summer, some scheduled flights out of Zurich and out of Berne but that’s really a small part of the operation.
So, what does that mean for the IT department. The strategy with the biggest pillar in the wet lease flights leads to a focus in the IT department on Operations: we focus on Operations and not on the commercial part of the IT. So, not a large involvement for distribution systems, booking platforms, pricing etc. which is all outsourced as Software as a Service (SaaS), a small part of our IT investment.
THE REASON TO MAKE THE CHANGE
Helvetic Airways was founded in 2003 and, as you might imagine, in the twenty years since start-up, the IT infrastructure has grown to be increasingly mature as further capabilities get added on. For instance, if there is a new business model, a new application is needed and there are new legal requirements which need a new application… throughout its development we have built and regularly topped-up an increasingly large and complex IT infrastructure. Along with that, we realized that we were also getting increasingly inefficient and complicated to manage for a small organization like ours. For that reason, four years ago we decided to develop a digitalization strategy, one part of which was to ease the management of these applications.
From the beginning, it was clear we would not be able to manage that on our own. There were two options: we could take the existing IT infrastructure ask an IT supplier to manage that whole complex system and pay them to do that or there was the possibility to change the whole system and transform it to a new system which we could manage by ourselves. We thought about how we could achieve that and there are a few statistics that illustrate why we decided to go for SaaS.
The global market for Software as a Service is projected to grow from just over $100 billion in 2019 to near $200 billion this year, 2023. There are expected to have been about 2.2 billion users in 2022. The average number of SaaS applications used by organizations, from surveys between 2015 and 2021, increased from eight in 2015 to 110 in 2021 and that has continued to grow since then as it will grow further in the future. The growth is largely due to the increased adoption of SaaS applications for their scalability and cost effectiveness.
In a survey, one out of five organizations in 2021 said that they already have more than 75% of their workloads in the Cloud.
As you can imagine, workloads will increase in the future and more than half of the organizations surveyed said that they planned to have more than 50% of their workloads in the Cloud within the next twelve to 18 months. The leaders or drivers of this transformation are the United States of America where the biggest part is on Cloud adoption and where, together with Western Europe which is slowly catching up, there is 82% of the World’s Cloud computing.
As other regions catch up, the speed of disruption will increase even further in the next few years.
That is why Helvetic Airways decided to not focus on daily operational systems management any more but to focus on application consulting and digital innovation projects. We have more than fifty applications of which 90% are cloud based and our target for 2025 is that we want to have 100% Cloud only by then. We want to reduce the managed on-premises servers (hardware) to zero. The goal is, at the end, to have no local networks at all at Helvetica Airways facilities by 2025. It’s not an easy target but it is what we have set for ourselves to achieve. And, we aim to reduce the number of managed virtual servers by 80%.
There is a common misunderstanding about moving to the Cloud: it’s not just taking a virtualized server from your basement to the Cloud and then saying that you’re on the Cloud. That might help with the scalability, with the ability to simply move a slider if you want more disc space or more memory but that alone will not help with efficiency. You’ll be doing the same duties on a server based somewhere in the Cloud as for a server on your premises. Real efficiency comes with outsourcing the management of the applications: that’s what Software as a Service is and, for that reason, nearly three years ago, we approached Swiss-AS to discover what kind of solutions they have because AMOS is one of the biggest applications that we use. They presented their hosting solution and we took the decision to migrate just over two years ago.
I have to say that we were honestly pleased to find that this was a really easy migration in which we had a five-step approach during a two-month timeframe with the full-time involvement of three people from Swiss-AS and two people from Helvetic.
We knew the size of AMOS and it is part of Helvetic Airlines’ daily engineering operations but it was an easy parallel set-up prior to the migration. Also, with AMOS on the Cloud, we did not have to share a multi-tenanted service but had our own discreet SaaS on the Cloud.
At the beginning of the project, Swiss-AS handled the set-up with the automated deployment on Google Cloud. We provided them with the VPN (Virtual Private Network) tunnel; they then migrated the first part of the data. We did the user acceptance testing mainly for performance reasons and then we had the go-live which was really easy. A lot of the work was carried out by Swiss-AS with Helvetic Airways only needing a very low use of its own resources in the project. At the go-live there was a downtime of about one hour; then we got the new link for the new client, downloaded it and had the new application running in the Cloud. It was an easy and a successful migration.
Inevitable and as with any project, there were some challenges plus the business still has some old-school needs such as printers for rotable labels, batch readers and rotable batch printers still reliant on local infrastructure. That will be a challenge for the future; to work out how we can adapt these local infrastructures into the Cloud to have them in a closed environment together. These were the biggest problems: the system was running well but a problem was that one printer was not working properly. In the new IT environment, if we have a problem with the printer and it’s not a hardware problem, then it’s more difficult to solve the problem than before, when everything was on our own local network. But, in the context of what we have gained, these are really small problems.
After the migration, the tasks around the business are assigned in a different way and there are some tasks that we no longer need to care about.
We no longer need to worry about system availability anymore nor about the operating system, database updates, database back-ups, monitoring operating system metrics, operating system log files, or system parameters and back-ups. All of that is handled within the hosting contract. This means that Helvetic can really focus on application user support and being the center of excellence for the departments. AMOS is a big, complex application covering several departments working with various modules and we are trying to align the processes between each department and help them to understand the application. We do not focus on the technical IT parts but, as an IT department, we now try to focus on the business process part. And last but not least, whereas before we had to care about the database maintenance and so on, now we have a maintained database, a data lake maintained by Swiss-AS. We just can pull out the data and, whereas before we didn’t have the capability to analyze that data, now we can take the appropriate resources for this task.
THE BENEFITS THAT WE HAVE GAINED
The motivation for this migration was never really from a financial point of view because, with an IT department of only five people, it’s difficult to reduce it further. Our real aim was to access resources that could help with tasks like the data analysis (see above) for example. With the changing of the tasks, we’re trying to be more efficient and more effective. We don’t need network specialists or database admins anymore which, in times of labor shortages, especially in Switzerland, is a benefit.
Swiss-AS knows better than anyone else how to run their system, something that is true for any applications; the developer of the application knows better than anyone else how to run their system and, importantly, how to protect their system in the best way – see below. Swiss-AS has the resources that they can share for all of their hosted clients so that Helvetic does not need to.
RISKS TO BE AWARE OF
Notwithstanding the benefits, the changing of task assignments has an impact on risk management, a topic that is everywhere at the moment whenever we’re talking about information security, safety relevant data which we need to protect. First of all, you need to verify that any provider has the respective security processes. As a basis, there is the ISO 27001 certification of the operator and there are some pre-conditions such as that we have the data saved on Google Cloud in Switzerland. But, ultimately, it’s all about sub-contractor management. If I’m flying as a pilot in command on the Embraer there are a lot of sub-contractor duties within the whole environment. If I see the list in the manuals, the responsibilities of a pilot in command make up a very long list but s/he doesn’t do it all themself. They don’t do the fueling themselves, they don’t load the aircraft or do the calculations of the loading. What the pilot in command does is the verification of the service outsourced by the company and done by somebody else. Here, it’s the same as for the software provider: service level verification includes not only response times but also database back-up, re-install procedures, verification of some penetration testing results; that’s part of the verification and the first part of the summary, that’s what we see, the biggest challenge in the future.
Bearing in mind our target to have zero local servers by 2030, we have considered how we would manage if there was a server outage. If we do the risk assessment of the maintenance itself, there are contingency procedures using paper hard copy. In fact, almost all processes have hard copy contingency procedures both in maintenance and in-flight operations. There are also several internet connection possibilities including the Wi-Fi at the airport or 5G connection at the airport.
We will have more requirements coming with information security and sub-contractor management will be more important than ever in the future, especially with requirements coming with EASA Part IS in the next two or three years; there will be complicated requirements and we need to care that all the benefits we have gained from outsourcing will not be wasted with compliance processes internally. That’s why we’re trying to include the IT management, security management, safety management and the subcontractor management of the whole operation. That’s our challenge for the years ahead which, for a small organization, will be a task in itself.
Our experience with two years of AMOS hosting, has been a great success, not only the migration itself but also the operation of the SaaS since. Within the last two years, there was only one downtime incident which was solved within one hour and, as importantly, the root cause was followed up efficiently. But, other than that, we had no system related incidents. Helvetic Airways was able to reduce the manpower count and costs for AMOS Application Management which has enabled us to focus on new projects like the eTLB digitalization and integration. For the future, Helvetic will only be adopting SaaS solutions.
Of course, moving to the hosted service did mean that the costs went up but, on the other side, it was worth it for the improved quality of our processes and for the compensatory cost reductions such as the reduced manpower costs.
I hope that this case study will provide readers with some insight which might help if you are embarking on a similar course with similar decisions to make.
After graduating from the Horizon Swiss Flight Academy with his Airline Transport Pilot License, in 2006, Christian joined Helvetic Airways as Technical Services Coordinator and, in 2009, became a pilot with the airline. While working as a pilot, in 2014 he was appointed Deputy Nominated Person Flight Operations and, in 2016, Nominated Person Flight Operations. In 2020, he took on the role of Chief Technology Officer at Helvetic Airways.
Helvetic Airways is a Swiss airline. Established in 2003, the entirely Swiss airline offers European destinations in the short and medium-haul sectors and operates from Zurich and Bern-Belp airports. The 18 strong fleet operated by Helvetic Airways AG consists exclusively of Embraer aircraft: E190, E190-E2 and E195-E2. Helvetic Airways has one of the largest fleets for short and medium-haul regional flights in Europe.
Swiss AviationSoftware (Swiss-AS) offers a functionally unsurpassed and technologically state-of-the-art maintenance system. AMOS is a comprehensive, fully-integrated software package that successfully manages the maintenance, engineering and logistics requirements of modern airlines and MRO providers by fulfilling demanding airworthiness standards. Over 200 customers from all over the world and ranging from pure operators, major charter, regional and low-cost carriers up to large airline groups and MRO providers make up the AMOS community.