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Collaboration hones Lufthansa Systems' IT support process

A collaborative toolchain links stakeholders in Lufthansa Systems' IT support process, which includes customers in software testing and development.

IT transformation can be tricky when your software is used globally to keep planes on course, but as Lufthansa Systems works to become an Agile software development shop, its IT support process is already ahead of its time.

Many enterprises still struggle to foster strong collaboration between business units, application developers, IT operations and customers as part of a DevOps transformation. Lufthansa Systems, which makes IT software for airlines in Frankfurt, Germany, already has these groups on the same page.

"When I first ran into the term DevOps, my first thought was, 'We've been doing this for years already,'" said George Lewe, manager of central applications and tools at Lufthansa Systems.

The firm's software development process accommodates direct customer feedback -- hundreds of airline customers such as Icelandair and El Al access the same Atlassian JIRA issue tracking system used by its software developers, product managers and IT operations. Most new features developed for Lufthansa Systems' airline operation software products, including navigation, airline financial operations and in-flight entertainment systems, are requested by customers through JIRA.

IT staff is connected using JIRA as well, to streamline troubleshooting in Lufthansa Systems' data centers.

We've been doing [devops] for years already.
George Lewemanager of central applications and tools, Lufthansa Systems

"If a monitoring event shows that we need to do something on a server, the operations specialist team opens a JIRA issue," Lewe said. "This goes to product management, which analyzes it and from there the issue is assigned to the appropriate department."

Lufthansa Systems also uses Atlassian's Confluence team collaboration software to communicate with customers, respond to software feature requests and advise them of new features and updates. IT operations teams also share Confluence spaces to troubleshoot issues and improve processes such as disaster recovery.

Software is not continuously updated in production at Lufthansa Systems, but it is created collaboratively and continuously evaluated for improvement by product managers and developers. Their toolchain includes Eclipse for Java development, Atlassian's FishEye and Crucible code review tools, Jenkins for application testing and deployment and Docker as the packaging format for apps, which are deployed in an IBM-hosted data center. IBM engineers working in the hosted data center are also connected to the rest of the IT support process through JIRA.

Customers are part of the testing process for applications Lufthansa Systems hosts for them, and they can authorize the deployment of changes to production, also using JIRA.

"It's one tool, and several departments -- companies, even -- using the same environment," Lewe said.

Next to arrive: Centralized IT support tools

As Lufthansa Systems advances its mobile application development process, it will also become an Agile shop and release software updates more rapidly. To help with this, the company will centralize its code repositories by year's end, currently scattered among multiple locations in Europe in separate Apache Subversion and Git deployments. GitHub and Atlassian's Bitbucket are the finalists in the company's search for a new tool.

Every product that has to do with code must be set up separately in FishEye, including user accounts, login information, IP addresses for code repositories, and SSH keys, Lewe said. "We have so many [repositories] that it's very difficult to maintain -- it's much easier if FishEye just talks to one server," he said.

Lufthansa Systems wants to deploy a centralized instance of JIRA Service Desk but has run into issues porting its user access permission scheme from its wider JIRA deployment to the IT support tool. Service Desk also uses per-agent licensing, which is prohibitively expensive for a company the size of Lufthansa Systems, Lewe said.

As of this week, Atlassian offers enterprise software bundles, dubbed Atlassian Stack, that allow large companies to go through one purchasing and approval process for multiple software titles. Lufthansa Systems would like an enterprise license agreement for the bundles, possibly across the larger Lufthansa Group which has more than 500 subsidiary companies, including the well-known Lufthansa airline, Lewe said.

IT support process weathers vendor growing pains

Lufthansa Systems was an early adopter of JIRA and Confluence in 2004, when these tools were Atlassian's only products. It centralized JIRA and Confluence deployments in 2011, and these environments now support 15,000 users, 800 projects and 750,000 issues.

Along the way, Atlassian's growth has disrupted the development and support programs for its products, Lewe said. Unlike other software companies, Atlassian doesn't provide product roadmaps to its customers, but users can request new features and vote on what they'd like to see the company do next. The company focuses its development efforts on the top 20 issues identified by customers, but as the user base swelled from 17,500 in 2011 to 85,000 customers today, some feature requests have stalled, in some cases for a decade or more, he said.

Atlassian's regular technical support was enough for Lufthansa Systems at first, but now the company would pay for premier support for Atlassian products, Lewe said. That includes a dedicated team of senior service engineers, as well as 30-minute response times for business-critical tickets and two hours for nonbusiness critical tickets.

Before, "sometimes [problems] were not fixed, sometimes it would take a couple weeks," Lewe said, though he added Lufthansa Systems has never encountered a critical issue with its use of Atlassian products.

Lufthansa Systems would also like nondisruptive upgrades, a key feature of the more expensive Data Center editions of Atlassian's products, to be added to single-server deployments, but Atlassian said it has no plans to do this.

Beth Pariseau is senior news writer for TechTarget's Data Center and Virtualization Media Group. Write to her at bpariseau@techtarget.com or follow @PariseauTT on Twitter.

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