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Travelling a virtual line

Flight Centre's head of IT knows the benefits of desktop virtualisation. Speedy deployment helped the travel company continue serving customers after the Christchurch quakes.

NoneUntil recently Kelvin Kroll was IT leader at Flight Centre New Zealand. He’ll soon return to Australia to take on a global infrastructure strategy role.

He wanted to change the way the company delivered desktop productivity tools to its retail outlets, after a virtualisation project a few years ago led Flight Centre to migrate its backend infrastructure to VMware. By changing to a centralised desktop, resources could be redirected from supporting services that cost the company around 200 person-hours per month. Flight Centre was running a server in each of its retail stores – there are 140 of them in New Zealand and the company has around 1050 employees here.

“Having to manage that obviously had its own overhead and we wanted to work towards a zero-configuration environment for retail,” says Kroll, who’s also overseeing the company’s application refresh.

Cutting costs and headcount

He first evaluated the cost and practicality of upgrading all of the servers, compared with migrating to private cloud offerings using either fully managed virtualisation or managing the hardware inhouse.

After cost analysis, Kroll proposed his IT department manage New Zealand-based infrastructure in a number of datacentres, with Citrix and Dell as the main vendors.

Once the Flight Centre board approved the project, a pilot began in August 2010. A proof of concept with a larger pilot group was completed in around three months and the system rolled out within six months. It went live in January 2011.

Kroll considered a number of metrics, including some clear financial benefits: he calculated potential onsite power savings of around $90,000 a year – even taking into account the power the company would consume in its datacentres by virtualising and centralising.

A shift to a desktop environment that required zero configuration was his other goal. “What we’d traditionally done was send people out to site, set up the workstations and servers, get quality assurance [QA] and have someone onsite for when the stores went live. Now we have a vendor plug everything in and it self-configures. We can QA it without having to attend the site.”

Kroll estimates Flight Centre will reduce its headcount by at least three over the next three years, thanks to the stores’ reduced need for IT support.

Community spirit

Rapid deployment of its desktop virtualisation project meant Flight Centre was fortunate to have business continuity in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquakes.

It has 15 stores in the city, including a number in the CBD, but the functioning store count had dropped to half a dozen when Sandy and Mike Trengrove, owners of Mondo Travel in Riccarton, came to its rival’s aid.

“They were really fantastic. They had space in one of their stores and a number of our consultants were working out of their back offices. We work with Vodafone and they got us up and running with a bunch of handsets. We supplied the consultants with laptops and they operated out of there for about six weeks.”

At various times, each of the central stores’ trading capabilities were compromised. But Christchurch staff continued to be able to access business and customer data because it was transferred to other stores and branch offices.

Flight Centre has been using cloud services, including Salesforce CRM, for a number of years; more recently the Google Apps platform with a focus on email. “We still use Office and in one country Open Office, so we haven’t completely migrated but it’s something that’s maturing very quickly.”

In his new role, Kroll says he’ll look at the company’s enterprise architecture and evaluate public versus private cloud more closely.

App and about

Flight Centre has historically had a relatively mobile New Zealand workforce. Now it’s beginning to enable its consultants to take their business tools to the customers. “We have people who go out and meet-and-greet and do their consulting face-to-face, not so much in the office. But the really new part in all of that is the power that people are carrying around in their own pockets.”

Kroll says authoritarian policies tend to be bad for business. He sees the consumerisation of devices as a reality to be accommodated.

“The company approach to IT services has been quite restrictive in the past but the attitude that we’re taking now is we want to allow openness in connectivity. But it’s finding the balance, making sure there’s something in it for the business as well as the owner of the device.”

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