Architecting a robust, scalable system
30 November 2015
Interislander’s development journey has been one of evolution, not revolution, as the company has skilfully navigated a course through changing technology and customer demands.
Interislander provides a road and rail ferry service across Cook Strait between Wellington and Picton. Owned and operated by KiwiRail, it has three ‘roll-on roll-off’ vessels that complete the crossing in three hours.
As the 20th century receded Interislander (then called The Interisland Line) faced a dramatic change to its business. Airlines, including Air New Zealand, had begun making it easier and cheaper for their customers to book flights online rather than through travel agents or call centres. Interislander’s customers wanted to book their ferry travel the same way. Meeting this demand would require the company to radically alter and simplify its business process. The decision to custom build an internet reservations platform that could adapt to change has resulted in a system that supports and helps drive the business. Interislander’s story has been one of evolution, as that system has adapted in tune with the company’s commercial journey. No revolutionary replacement – with all the associated trauma and expense – has been necessary. Nobody has lost their head. This case study details the course Interislander took in order to adapt to seismic shifts in the market and keep its competitive edge.
Back in 2002 The Interisland Line had a website comprising simple static HTML pages. It was essentially an online brochure with a sales enquiry facility. Sandfield was selected to build an Internet Reservations Channel (IRC) that interacted with Interislander’s back-office enterprise booking system (a package-based solution that came from a supplier in the UK).
The first phase of the IRC delivered the ability for both ‘direct’ customers and existing Interislander agencies to create new bookings, pay for bookings, and cancel bookings online. This went live in November 2002. The first customer had an email address at NASA. We’re not sure if he was actually a rocket scientist, but we do know he rode a motorcycle and was the first person to book his passage across the Cook Strait online.
As soon as the IRC went live, work started on a series of incremental improvements to add functionality. During this period, some key business changes occurred, including a new pricing structure for Internet bookings and a corporate re-branding from The Interisland Line to Interislander.
During 2003 and 2004, the IRC was modified and expanded to include the new pricing structure, day packages, the ability to change existing bookings, the new branding and new website design, and the addition of functions that allowed the Call Centre to use the IRC as well as Internet customers and agencies.
The improvements were achieved in small projects focused on one particular area of functionality, resulting in six separate upgrades to the IRC system over a two-year period.
The IRC proved extremely popular with the direct customer market and the volume of bookings going through the system far exceeded what Interislander had anticipated. Its success provided the motivation to scale the system up so that it became the sole reservation system. In 2005 Sandfield began work on a new system, named Orca. This system was to fully replace the IRC and RES2000, the legacy system, with additional functionality for Interislander staff. It would contain all booking data in one single database that would replace the synchronisation process used between RES2000 and the IRC. The new system also needed to take over the functions previously supplied to the IRC by RES2000, such as maintaining sailings and the inventory available for sale, and the pricing for all possible types of booking in the system.
This project was a major undertaking, made easier by the knowledge of the business that Sandfield had acquired during the delivery and on-going enhancement of the IRC. Orca was built using more up-to-date and scaleable Microsoft technologies than those that were available at the time of the IRC development. Orca went live in November 2006, almost four years to the day after the IRC first went live. The RES2000/IRC combination went into retirement. The way had been paved and now it was the turn of a more capable system to carry the business forward. With the entire booking system contained on a single platform, the process of on-going evolution could now continue without the restrictions imposed by the legacy system.
With Orca bedded in, a constant stream of additional development took place to keep Interislander out in front in the ferry travel market. The company’s digital strategy evolved over this time and a new website was designed and developed for the ‘direct’ consumer market in 2008. Orca was retained for all other users (agencies, the Call Centre, and Interislander users, including terminal staff). This meant that there was a booking website specifically targeted at the one segment of the user base that was growing and that the user experience could be tailored to these users.
Once the new website was commissioned, it too began its evolutionary journey as new products were introduced along with new payment options and improvements to the booking experience. Customer accounts were introduced to make things easier for repeat customers as well as giving Interislander a better view of their customer demographics.
In 2012, a mobile website was launched to cater for an increasing number of smartphone sessions on the website. This was a small website, built quickly to be first to market in New Zealand with a mobile offering for ferry travel, helping Interislander stay out in front of the competition. The mobile website, like the first version of the IRC, was a “quick win” with initially limited booking creation functionality.
The next logical step for the Orca system was to open it up to some of the bigger agencies so that they could make Interislander bookings from their own booking systems. To achieve this, Sandfield built web services so the ferry booking could be integrated directly into the agency’s booking system (either back-office or via their own booking website). This provides benefits to both Interislander and their agencies as it reduces separate ferry booking work for the agencies, integrates ferry bookings into their own direct customer booking websites, and reduces agency support for bookings at the Interislander end.
In recent years, smartphone uptake has increased considerably as the technology has evolved and the cost of ownership has reduced. The number of users visiting websites on mobile devices and tablets has increased to the extent that over 50% of traffic to a website may be via a tablet or smartphone. Interislander’s mobile website offered limited functionality so the time had come to improve the features available to the mobile user.
Rather than extend the mobile website, Sandfield converted the current direct website from the fixed-width design to a responsive design that would work on all devices. This approach meant that all functionality, both now and in the future, would be available to users regardless of the device they used to access the site. The responsive website went live in October 2014.
Further enhancements were rolled out at the same time, including an improved service for Interislander’s loyalty scheme. With the introduction of a new payment option, Interislander’s most valued customers could redeem their loyalty points online.
The journey that began over 12 years ago continues today. The current Orca system has now been in operation at Interislander for over eight years. During this time, it has evolved to meet the changing needs of the business it supports. There has been no need to re-write Orca simply to ‘try on’ the latest trends in software development tools and methodologies.
The success of the system has been determined by its ability to serve the business. Orca has remained relevant by constantly adapting to meet Interislander’s needs. Some of those needs have been driven from within the business, such as new products, system enhancements, and process improvements. Others have been driven by external influences such as the advent of new technology such as smartphones and other mobile devices that didn’t exist when the system was first conceived.