Jetstar jumps on Microsoft's Lync

Jetstar has been revealed as one of the first customers to deploy Microsoft's Lync unified communications suite — the software formerly known as Office Communications Server.

Jetstar has been revealed as one of the first customers to deploy Microsoft's Lync unified communications suite — the software formerly known as Office Communications Server.

Jetstar CIO Stephen Tame said that when Jetstar was set up, he bought a "second-hand" PABX system which cost about $10,000. Now the time has come to replace that PABX, but Tame isn't planning to buy a new monolithic platform from the likes of Cisco or Avaya.

Tame said when Jetstar's PABX system reached end of life, he faced a choice. "Do we buy a piece of hardware, or do we push ourselves into a software world?"

If you can name the new technology, odds are Tame has implemented it or at least trialled it at Jetstar since the start-up airline was formed in 2003. Software-as-a-Service (SuccessFactors, RightNow, Navitaire), SMS check-ins, in-flight iPads, thin-client terminals and 3G mobile broadband have all had their time in the sun at the budget airline.

Since Jetstar was formed, it was expected to forge its way separately to Qantas, according to Tame. For example, whereas Qantas has a plethora of in-house legacy applications which it is attempting to modernise, Jetstar has never really bothered with on-premises software, opting for the software-as-a-service model wherever possible. Where Qantas might roll out expensive cables all the way to its terminals to provide network services, Jetstar looks at lightweight alternatives like netbooks with in-built 3G cards — for a fraction of the cost.

Given this, it wasn't unusual that Tame decided to skip monolithic platforms from companies such as Avaya or Cisco, instead doing away with the deskphone completely.

Jetstar has moved 500 employees at its head office across to the softphone Lync platform over the past several months and will look at a gradual wider deployment to its international operations as well, when appropriate.

"We are a young and highly mobile business and our management team is equipped with mobile devices; however, desk phones, and their extension numbers, have been an anchor that has restricted true mobility," said Tame.

The new platform is already driving a change in the way Jetstar's employees are working internally.

"Over the past few years, people have become more mobile," said Tame, noting that laptops, instant messages and email now follow employees as they travel or even just move around the office. "The only thing that has been anchoring you to your desk is your desk phone."

Now Jetstar staff can plug in their laptop in Singapore and take and place phone calls on their Melbourne-based number. Voicemail messages are delivered by email and IM also follows staff around.

"Fixed landlines are becoming irrelevant," said the CIO.

Tame said his fellow CIOs need to face facts when it comes to the changing habits of their workforces. "One of the biggest applications I had in my business was Google Talk," he said, referring to the search giant's popular IM, voice and video application. "It's silly if CIOs think it isn't happening anyway," he said about the software unified communications revolution.

Traditional wisdom is that when large organisations buy corporate IP telephony solutions, the whole network must be enabled for quality of service, the back-end hardware integrated with desk phones, and so on. And Jetstar does have quality of service on its network, except on one international link to Singapore, where Tame would like to implement it.

But Tame points out that Australia is on the verge of a bandwidth explosion being driven by the National Broadband Network roll-out, so corporate networks will eventually shrink anyway. The CIO said he has already shifted some of Jetstar's regional locations off expensive high-end corporate links and onto broadband, because it's good enough and does the job. The rapidly expanding 3G networks have already started to provide a level of network redundancy.

"When the NBN comes in, these things start to come into their own," he said of the planned gigabit network. "If you can use a [virtual private network] back to the office, you don't need a corporate network any more."

Redundancy, too, is not so much a problem any more: as voice telecommunications moves into software, if a system breaks, it's possible to simply swap in another virtualised image and it's back up.

Jetstar does still maintain some handsets (about 50), especially for executive staff; Not all of the 500 staff it has moved onto Lync are purely using software to make calls now. But the overwhelming majority are now using headsets connected to their PCs to place calls. And Lync integrates back into email and Active Directory systems.

Jetstar also has traditional videoconferencing devices in the business, as well as roundtable devices which let multiple staff talk to each other across the globe.

Of course, although Tame has earned himself a reputation in Australia's technology sector for being on the cutting edge, he still maintains his core of CIO cynicism about vendor hype. One unified communications concept which the CIO appears to think might be a bit overblown is the concept of 'presence', which lets employees see each others' online status and call each other at an appropriate time rather than when one party is in a meeting, for example.

Tame points out that while presence is "a nice to have", it doesn't necessarily play into the actual way business work in practice.

"Put it this way, if I'm busy, my chief executive officer doesn't care," he said. "And if I see his name pop up, I sort of have to answer it."