Testing times for Qantas online

Bradley Tate, Qantas Internet services manager is tasked with the job of keeping Qantas.com 'flying high'.
Written by Angus Kidman, Contributor

When you're serving millions of page views a day and actively trying to encourage four million loyal customers to use the Internet, how do you ensure those applications don't come crashing to the ground? For Qantas, a critical part of the balancing act in keeping its site running has been increasing the sophistication of its Internet application monitoring and testing.

Since its initial rollout in 1999, Qantas.com and subsidiary sites have become a vital element in Qantas's operations. "The level of online bookings has been growing for the last two years, and our intention is to keep growing that," said Bradley Tate, Internet services manager for Qantas. According to Qantas's 2006 annual report, 44 percent of all domestic flight bookings are made online, while 70 percent of frequent flyer redemptions are handled via Qantas.com.

Qantas's network of Web sites attracts two million page views a day and more than five million unique visitors a month. What appears as a single site is, however, a complicated mixture of applications spread across six full function sites and an additional 21 region-specific marketing sites. Tate's division of 35 staff is responsible for managing 33 customer-facing applications, as well as eight internal systems.

The site originally used CGI-scripted applications, but now largely relies on custom-built J2EE applications running on BEA's WebLogic platform. "Most of our applications depend quite heavily on back-end legacy systems," Tate said during a presentation at CA Expo in Melbourne this week.

As well as the airlines' own mainframe systems, much of the data is drawn from the Amadeus reservations system hosted in Germany. The main Qantas.com site includes 16 separate applications and 10 independent instances of WebLogic.

J2EE is a wonderful technology, but it is a black box ... It is very hard in a running application to tell what's going wrong.

Bradley Tate, Internet services manager, Qantas

The basic goal for all those applications is simple, Tate said: "There is no downtime." For the first five years of the site's operation, however, system tracking to ensure that goal was somewhat rudimentary.

"Our monitoring was largely based on legacy internal scripts running at the server or WebLogic instance level," Tate said. Application availability wasn't directly measured, and troubleshooting largely consisted of backwards guesswork (this is working, so it must be something else) rather than a more directed approach.

"J2EE is a wonderful technology, but it is a black box," Tate said. "It is very hard in a running application to tell what's going wrong."

In early 2004, Tate began trialling Wily's Introscope product as a means of more directly measuring application performance. (Wily was acquired by CA in early 2006.) One of the first tests for the system was in assessing the rollout of a new package, QH Connect, which was being built by an external developer for the Qantas Holidays division.

QH Connect was designed to allow external suppliers such as hotels and cruise operators to upload contract and product information into the Qantas Holidays system. "If they don't have contracts, they don't have products to sell," Tate said.

Testing, however, didn't present a pretty picture. "In our testing of this application, we found significant performance problems," Tate said. "It was pretty obvious the application was going to fall over under any performance load whatsoever."

The Wily test data suggested that the problem lay in how database connections were managed and pooled. After providing that information to the developer, a new version was able to be rolled out within two months. The success of that test run also gave Tate a sound basis to argue for a production rollout across the entire Qantas network.

While the full rollout isn't due to finish for another six months, Qantas is already seeing benefits from the implementation. "We're starting now to detect problems in our applications before our customers do," Tate said.

That kind of approach is likely to become increasingly common in the future. "Organisations are interested in the experience customers have when they try and contact them," said Etcetera CEO Peter Brown, who acted as a consultant to Qantas during its implementation of Introscope.

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