In-Depth

NetJets flies with Web service-free SOA

It is a little known fact, as Cliff might say to his buddies at Cheers, that you can build a Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) system without using Web services standards, including SOAP.

A case in point are the custom SOA-based applications that make up the heart of the information technology system supporting NetJets Inc., a Warren Buffett Berkshire Hathaway Inc. company that provides time-share-style private jet services to wealthy clients. The firm’s U.S. operations center is located in Columbus, Ohio.

NetJets CTO Brian VanDer Ploeg said that while his group is looking at Web services for some communications applications, it was not the choice for the data-intensive applications for scheduling flights, crews and catering on short notice.

“In the Service-Oriented Architecture [world] this is the exception that proves the rule,” said Vivek Singhal, vice president of engineering and products at San Mateo, Calif.-based Persistence Software Inc., which provided data caching and other support for NetJets’ system.

“It’s a Service-Oriented Architecture, but because it uses all custom applications, it doesn’t need SOAP.”

The NetJets’ version of SOA employs J2EE servers running mission-critical applications for scheduling planes and crews, and clients running a custom Windows-based application. The firm’s VanDer Ploeg describes the PC front end used by customer service representatives as being somewhat like Microsoft Project, except line items change in real-time as planes take off and land.

The integration piece uses a COM-to-CORBA bridge to make calls between the J2EE services and the Windows-based clients, Persistence Software’s Singhal explained.

NetJets’ VanDer Ploeg said he considered the more typical SOA Web-based front end but determined that HTML and the current state of Web services technology was not up to tracking jet flights in real-time.

“We looked at a Web front end, but the Web is not rich enough to do the things we have to do,” he said. “There are lot of requirements here that make it the wrong choice for being Web-based.”

While the custom-built services interacting with an Oracle database were written in Java using the Eclipse IDE, VanDer Ploeg determined that a Java client was not the right choice.

“I’m still of the opinion that Java GUIs on the client are not where they need to be,” he said. “So we opted for a Microsoft Visual Basic GUI for the client. The front end is somewhat similar to Microsoft Project. The tasks are flights. It’s an extremely rich GUI that’s updated in real-time, so it has attributes that are similar to trading systems rather than a typical reservation system.”

What makes the NetJets system different from a regularly scheduled airline reservation system is that while standard airlines set schedules for flights, at NetJets it is the passengers -- who have fractional ownership of the plane -- who set the schedule. For example, a NetJets client may call out of the blue and say, “I need to fly from Los Angeles to Aspen tomorrow morning with a party of four.”

So the decision to create a Service-Oriented Architecture without the usual Web portal was based on the unique requirements of NetJets, said VanDer Ploeg, who favors using Web services where the technology can handle the workload. He just does not consider the Web a panacea.

“There are still, in today’s world, business requirements that require us to build non-Web-based applications,” he said. “In our case that applied.”

Please see the following related stories: “SOA’s up” by Colleen Frye

“What to look for in Web services management” by Colleen Frye

About the Author

Rich Seeley is Web Editor for Campus Technology.

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