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Virgin America's CIO gets an IT greenfield

Few CIOs get to build a technology infrastructure from scratch. In that regard, Virgin America CIO Bill Maguire is a lucky man.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Few CIOs get to build a technology infrastructure from scratch. In that regard, Virgin America CIO Bill Maguire is a lucky man.

Virgin America is expecting to go "wheels up" at the end of June pending Department of Transportation approval. The airline is looking to offer domestic service in the U.S. and plans to bring many of the creature comforts that its sibling Virgin Atlantic offers (right). In terms of technology infrastructure, Virgin America will be the biggest launch since JetBlue, another airline that got to play with a greenfield. "We were given a clean slate," says Maguire.
I interviewed Maguire (left) at the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo to get a read on what he's building at Virgin America in terms of technology. If Maguire is successful, Virgin America's systems should be state of the art considering other U.S. carriers have old systems dating back to the 1960s underneath layers of applications. "We have a server farm not a bunch of mainframes," says Maguire.

On technology strategy: Maguire said Virgin America's strategy is to have an infrastructure that's "lightweight and flexible." Overall, that means a decent amount of outsourcing. Maguire sees his staff's role as the glue that makes various providers mesh together well. "We'll go live with 20 people in IT," says Maguire.

On partners: Maguire has outsourced Virgin America's reservation system to Travelport; its call center to Arise, a company that offers home-based customer service reps; and its interactive voice response (IVR) system to Tuxox. The network infrastructure is run by Verizon Business.

On software: Maguire says Virgin America is running 50 percent to 60 percent of its applications on Linux, primarily from Red Hat. Microsoft applications account for the rest. "Where we had a choice we went with Linux," says Maguire. "If an application needed Windows we went with Microsoft."

On productivity: Maguire says that having a greenfield means you can be a bit cutting edge, but he aims to add technology features for productivity purposes. For example, Virgin America has extended its network to the cockpit. The benefit: Pilots and staff can get integrated voicemail and email in flight. While this may not seem like a huge deal, Maguire notes that there's a wow factor for in-air staff.

On building a team: Since "almost every part and piece is outsourced" Maguire says it's imperative to have a diverse team located around the globe. "I picked a team that's diverse and from 12 different countries," he says.

On what can't be outsourced: Maguire says that there are two things that Virgin America won't outsource: Its "customer user interface" (also known as its Web site). "When 75 percent to 80 percent of our revenue comes from the Web site we have to have control," says Maguire. That same thinking applies to Virgin America's cabin design, which embeds nifty controls in each seat (left).

Another item that won't be outsourced is Virgin America's security architecture. Maguire notes that it's beneficial for companies to outline their own security architecture to "know the parts and pieces and vulnerabilities." He will outsource security monitoring, however. Maguire notes that with Sarbanes-Oxley requirements the auditors like the double check.

And Virgin America also operates its own data center, which will distribute information to all of its systems. Here Maguire also takes a hybrid offshore approach. "I'm building out data centers now but not staffing it at night. That's daytime in India we have a partner to monitor it," says Maguire.  

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