Up in the cloud - JAL uses AWS to accelerate its secure and efficient digital transformation

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The cloud has become an enabler of digital transformation projects to support developing business needs.

In the case of Japan Airlines Group, a partnerships with AWS has helped reduce operating costs by 50% through the flexible operation of IT resources, has promoted understanding of the cloud among JAL teams, has enabled quick provision of IT infrastructure, and has helped anticipate the utilisation of advanced technologies, such as using data analysis to improve the customer experience.

In its management plan, Japan Airlines Group has established the "JAL Vision", and has proceeded with initiatives to transform its airline business, JAL, into a truly global airline, creating new offerings one step ahead of competitors and achieving sustainable growth.

The Japanese flag carrier is working on a project to build a new cloud platform called 'CIEL' (meaning "sky" in French) in order to revamp the system used in various businesses operated by the JAL Group, including aircraft management, aircraft maintenance, and passenger services.

JAL's IT Planning Department and JAL Infotec, the main IT company in the JAL Group, support these efforts from an IT perspective. JAL is standardising its cloud API platform and updating the customer support system on Amazon Web Services (AWS).

"Cloud computing has progressed faster than initially expected, and cost reductions have been achieved while ensuring security. We will continue utilising new technologies to further improve efficiency and convenience in the future", says Kazuhiro Kurita, manager, IT operations and planning department, IT planning division at the airline.

  • The cloud has become an enabler of digital transformation projects to support developing business needs.
  • Japan Airlines Group has partnered with AWS to reduce operating costs by 50% and improve IT resource flexibility.
  • JAL is working on building a new cloud platform called 'CIEL' to revamp its business systems.
  • CIEL is a hybrid cloud platform consisting of private cloud, external hosting, and AWS components.
  • JAL selected AWS for its cloud infrastructure due to detailed responses and security capabilities.
  • Implementing AWS in CIEL/S has led to cost reductions, changed staff mindsets, and accelerated digital transformation efforts.

Building JAL's cloud platform for stability and growth

In response to global changes in the airline industry, JAL has an ambition to be the most selected and loved airline by passengers in the world.

In 2016 its IT Planning Department and JAL Infotec started the 'CIEL' project, to build a cloud platform to serve as the foundation of JAL's business system.

CIEL aims to allow flexible management of quality, speed, and cost through seamless coordination of operations, while using virtualisation and other technologies to deploy servers, storage, and networks in the on-premises environment and on an external cloud platform.

A hybrid solution to support corporate aspirations

As a hybrid cloud platform, CIEL can be broadly divided into three parts. It is a private cloud build based on VMware virtualization.

It consists of CIEL/J, which operates in the company's data centre; CIEL/D, which uses an external hosting service with the same configuration as CIEL/J; and CIEL/S, which serves as the foundation built using AWS to maximise the benefits of the cloud.

"We planned CIEL/S because we wanted to promote speed, cost reduction, and flexible cloud utilisation for customer optimisation and business continuity. We decided to use the cloud instead of refurbishing the aging system infrastructure on-site", says Kazuhiro Kurita, general manager, IT operations and planning department, IT planning division at JAL.

"In previous on-site environments, platforms have been configured using virtualisation technology since 2008. In this case, when the demand for a new system arises, each component such as the network, server, storage, monitoring, logging, and back-up functions need to be readied", he explains.

"However, we wanted to take advantage of the fact that building on the cloud with the same requirements can be done more quickly. In addition, as the number of projects for which data utilisation has become indispensable has increased, it has become difficult to forecast infrastructure demand, increasing the need to build a cloud infrastructure that feels fast and provides flexibility.

"Since the old system was still going strong, we decided to connect the system to a hybrid cloud platform out of consideration for business continuity", Mr Kurita adds.

Deploying JAL's requirements on AWS

In selecting the cloud infrastructure, Hiroshi Fujishima of JAL's Infotec - system infrastructure service business division, system infrastructure department, and common service infrastructure department - was in charge of the CIEL project from the formulation of the request for a proposal to each company.

The request for proposals included 236 requirements, and he acknowledges that AWS gave the most detailed response among several cloud vendors.

"I appreciated that they included a detailed description on how the essential requirements of the JAL Group relate to AWS services, including security issues and the ability to troubleshoot and recover the system ourselves if a failure occurs", Mr Fujishimja says, on the reason for selecting AWS.

Masashi Oshima, who works at JAL Infotec in the system infrastructure services division and system infrastructure division (hybrid cloud infrastructure department, hybrid cloud operations group) on the CIEL construction project, also notes: "AWS offers a wide variety of services and is attractive because of the large number of AWS Partners".

The introduction of CIEL/S started around Feb-2018. AWS' Premier Consulting Partner, NEC Corporation (NEC), was in charge of installation support, with consultation support provided by AWS Professional Services. CIEL/S was released as a cloud platform for the JAL Group in Dec-2018.

Initially, JAL requested a method for meeting system requirements available on the old system, such as monitoring and backup, on AWS. NEC carefully distilled JAL's requirements up to that point and deployed it on AWS, allowing aircraft operation and management, aircraft maintenance, and other such systems to be built.

Building a customer support system with strict security requirements on AWS

In Mar-2019 the decision was made to deploy a new system for handling customer information on CIEL/S.

The system supports a connected, seamless travel experience from reservation to boarding. Many discussions were held regarding off-site operation due to a concern that any leaking or falsification of customer data could have a significant impact on JAL and its customers.

Addressing the importance of security requirements, Minoru Shoji - the head of JAL's IT planning division, IT operations and planning department, technology strategy group - says, "AWS helped us understand how the support of AWS Professional Services can solve our concerns about managing data in the cloud, as well as other security concerns, by explaining how they think about security at AWS."

The specific proposal was to separate accounts for each system, control access, and improve security.

"This was great advice. Currently, we have separate accounts for development of the same system and for the production environment. We have also revised existing guidelines so they can be applied to cloud environments without lowering the level of security," says Hiroshi Fujishima.

Cultivating a cloud-centric culture and accelerating digital transformation

One of the factors evaluated about the effectiveness of implementing AWS in CIEL/S is cost.

"The fact we have more options for building multiple environments in preparation for disaster recovery is a significant advantage", says Minoru Shoji.

"In addition, it was possible to reduce operating costs by 50% because volume can be flexibly adjusted according to fluctuations in demand. In the future, we would like to utilise cutting-edge technologies such as data analysis to improve the customer experience," he adds.

The team reports that using AWS is helping not only to reduce costs but also to change the mindset of technical staff. "Awareness of how utilising CIEL maximizes the benefits of the cloud has taken root", acknowledges Masashi Oshima (JAL Infotec).

In addition, a new initiative to use AWS services to visualise airport congestion with webcams and Amazon 'Rekognition', which makes it easy to add image and video analysis to applications using proven, highly scalable, deep learning technology, has begun.

"We have been able to improve the speed of development and reduce costs beyond our initial expectations by moving to the cloud. I'm really glad we did it", says Kazuhiro Kurita (general manager, IT operations and planning department at JAL).

"We can keep on accelerating the secure and efficient construction of IT infrastructure that supports the digital transformation of the JAL Group by changing our mindset in the IT department and utilizing new technologies", he adds.