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Wi-Fi provider refines business process management

Gogo taps MDS Lavastorm Systems for increased speed and efficiency when it comes to building or modifying its business process management.

Gogo LLC supplies airline passengers with a Wi-Fi connection starting at 10,000 feet, but doing so presents soaring challenges.

Providing the online portal and tracking a customer’s use of its service is only one aspect of Gogo’s operation. It also furnishes a product platform for media outlets such as People magazine as well as a promotional platform for manufacturers such as Ford Motor Co.

“We bring three industries together,” said Rama Prasad, senior vice president and chief information officer for Gogo. “We play in the airline industry, in the communications industry as well as in the e-commerce industry.”

To do so, IT employees work with domain experts to build new or modify existing business processes -- sequences of tasks producing a desired outcome or product. But, Prasad said, the management and implementation of these processes can be slow and inefficient. At the start of the year, Gogo employed a new analytics platform to remedy that.

“The business is fairly complex,” Prasad said. “It involves a lot of processing, of trying to understand the customer as well as trying to provide a unique experience for them.”

Close encounter with a business process
Cellular calls trigger a process of establishing records that document when the communication begins and ends. Telecommunications vendors process the records using what’s known as a mediation engine to determine how much of the plan a customer used and bills the customer accordingly. Gogo uses a comparable process.

“Similar records are created when you use a browser to go from website to website,” Prasad said.

A few years ago, Gogo selected Tibco as its mediation engine. Prasad characterized the technology as powerful but not the most appropriate for the purpose.

“To be fair, Tibco is middleware … They would probably tell you that’s not the best way of using Tibco at all,” Prasad said. “We had to figure out what is the right way to develop the mediation engine; otherwise it was getting in the way and slowing down our business.”

Take, for example, the month Gogo provided complimentary access to Facebook. Or when Alaska Airlines dispensed complimentary Wi-Fi service on smartphones and iPod Touches for August and September. Both promotions meant changes to the business process so customers could be billed correctly, and doing so within its Tibco environment was tedious and slow-going.

“We had to go into the code, modify it and go through the complete process,” Prasad said.

Standard mediation platforms exist, but Gogo’s needs are so unusual that a standard platform wouldn’t work well, Prasad said.

“There are not many other companies that do exactly what we do,” he said. “In fact, probably none. That’s the reason why anything we buy off the shelf would need to be customized.”

More collaboration, more agility
While Gogo was aware it needed to address the issue and refine the business process workflow in general, Prasad said the company wasn’t seeking out new tools when it bumped into a system it felt worthy of a closer look.

The Lavastorm Analytics Platform, a product from MDS Lavastorm Systems (formerly MDA), turned the mediation engine problem into an analytics problem, said Drew Rockwell, CEO of MDS.

“One of the things we’re trying to do is to look at this class of problems and not treat it as just an application, like a mediation application, but treat it as an analytics problem,” Rockwell said.

Gogo was more than a little familiar with MDS. The Wi-Fi provider began using a billing process system from MDS two to three years ago, Prasad said. When MDS, a company with roots in the communications industry, began peddling its analytics platform, Gogo agreed to a trial run.

Prasad said he was attracted to the Lavastorm’s ability to drive products to market quickly, but he still questioned its scalability -- could it handle the thousands and tens of thousands of records Gogo produces?

“The good news is, in quite a few of our business processes, they’re not in real time,” said Prasad. “A lot of this is month-end processing. Some of it is every week, some every day, but it’s not like we have a customer on the other line waiting for a credit card to go through before we give them the service.”

Once the scalability concern was eliminated, Gogo jumped from the desktop version it had downloaded for the trial run to the server version, which was installed in its data center within a matter of weeks.

Although Prasad acknowledged the mediation engine is an example unique to Gogo, optimizing business processes isn’t.

“The best way to think of this is as an analytics tool that helps you automate or program the business process,” he said.

Now, when Gogo needs to alter or build a business process, it brings IT and domain experts together, draws the current process on the wall and discusses changes, insertions or modifications needed.

“We bring our laptops into the room and we do the work right there and then,” Prasad said. “Then we go into test mode; we trial it out and put it into production. It keeps it very simple.”

And, in Gogo’s quickly changing market, it has cut project implementation time down from months to weeks, Prasad said.

“From a business process perspective, nothing has changed,” Prasad said. “What has changed is the amount of time we take to make changes to that.”

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