Over 30s VAX, Linux breeds Boeing's new jets

Hawker de Havilland, the local arm of aircraft engineering giant Boeing, will retire its 30-year-old VAX system in favour of its new Linux-based environment in the manufacture of parts for the company's next-generation 787 jets.

With about 1300 employees, Hawker de Havilland has been operating for more than 75 years and manages IT with two "legacy" ERP systems, according to applications and architecture manager Peter McTaggart.

"One is home-grown and still running on a VAX for some 30 years and the other is a commercial system customized to the hilt and it is also more than 20 years old," McTaggart said at a BEA Systems conference in Sydney. "We have a strategy of replacing those, but since they drive production systems they're not easy to replace."

There are also numerous ad hoc systems, including Microsoft Access, and spreadsheets developed by users, and with a "50-strong" IT group the capacity for application development is "very small".

After three years of thinking about how to modernize its core systems, the company began implementing a SOA last year based on BEA's Weblogic platform and a clustered Oracle-Linux database on the backend. The first client services went into production in March this year and remainder are due in the next month or so.

HDH now enjoys the flexibility of an enterprise service bus (ESB) which plugs into its manufacturing, HR, and quality management systems, with new apps to be added.

While McTaggart is happy to see Boeing move to more off-the-shelf software, he said some custom functionality needed to be developed to meet its needs, but the amount of work "wasn't that great".

This "real experience" in implementing an SOA aims to cement HDH's position as a "tier-1" supplier of parts to the likes of Boeing and Airbus.

An additional benefit of an SOA is the ability to eliminate the largely manual, paper-based nature of production systems.

"Whenever we have an operator on the shop floor they have a big stack of paper; we go through about $100,000 a year in A4 paper," McTaggart said, adding the organization now has an increased emphasis on IT and corporate governance, and regulatory compliance which are important in the aspect of flying safely.

"You can go to one vendor to provide everything or take a best of breed approach and use SOA to put them together," he said. "If we could find a vendor to rip out systems we would, but we don't want to be locked into any one vendor."

McTaggart said the key lessons learnt are to start small with a specific problem and don't necessarily use all the pieces vendors say you need.

"Don't over-architect the solution," he said. "Where we could make the platform work for us we did, and that paid of in efficiency."

HDH now anticipates it will use the SOA integration layer to tie in with its customers and suppliers.

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