Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Case Study: Southwest Airlines' Productivity Takes Off Using Virtualization and IT as a Service

Transcript of a BriefingsDirect podcast on how travel giant Southwest Airlines is using virtualization to streamline customer service applications.

Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes/iPod. Download the transcript. Sponsor: VMware.

Dana Gardner: Hello, and welcome to a special BriefingsDirect podcast series coming to you in conjunction with a recent VMworld 2011 Conference.

I'm Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions, and I’ll be your host throughout this series of VMware-sponsored BriefingsDirect discussions.

Our next VMware case study interview focuses on Southwest Airlines, one of the best-run companies anywhere, with some 35 straight years of profitability, and how "IT as a service" has been transformative for them in terms of productivity.

Here to tell us more about how Southwest is innovating and adapting with IT as a compelling strategic differentiator is Bob Young, Vice President of Technology and Chief Technology Officer at Southwest Airlines. [Disclosure: VMware is a sponsor of BriefingsDirect podcasts.]

Welcome to BriefingsDirect, Bob.

Bob Young: Well, thank you very much. I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you.

Gardner: We have heard a lot about IT as a service, and unfortunately, a lot of companies face an IT organization that might be perceived as a little less than service-oriented, maybe even for some a roadblock or a hurdle. How have you at Southwest been able to keep IT squarely in the role of enablement?

Young: First off, as everybody should know already, Southwest Airlines is the customer service champ in the industry. Taking excellent care of our customers is just as important as filling our planes with fuel. It’s really what makes us go.

So as we are taking a look and trying to be what travelers want in an airline, and we are constantly looking for ways to improve Southwest Airlines and make it better for our customers, that's really where virtualization and IT as a service comes into play. What we want to be able to do is make IT not say, "Oh, this is IT versus something else."

People want to be able to get on Southwest.com, make a reservation, log on to their Rapid Rewards or our Loyalty Program, and they want to be able to do it when they want to do it, when they need to do it, from wherever they are. And it’s just great to be able to provide that service.

We provide that to them at any point in time that they want in a reliable manner. And that's really what it gets right down to -- to make the functions and the solutions that we provide ubiquitous so people don’t really need to think about anything other than, "I need to do this and I can do it now."

At your fingertips

Gardner: I travel quite a bit and it seems to me that things have changed a lot in the last few years. One of the nice things is that information seems to be at your fingertips more than ever. I never seem to be out of the loop now as a traveler. I can find out changes probably as quickly as the folks at the gate.

So how has this transfer of information been possible? How have you been able to keep up with the demands and the expectations of the travelers?

Young: One of the things that we like to do at Southwest Airlines is listen to our customers, listen to what their wants and desires are, and be flexible enough to be able to provide those solutions.

If we talk about information and the flow of information through applications and services, it really starts to segment the core technical aspects of that so the customer and our employees don’t really need to think about it. When they want to get the flight at the gates, the passenger is on a flight leg, etc., they can go ahead and get that at any moment in time.

Another good example of that is earlier this year we rolled out our new Rapid Rewards 2.0 program. It represents a bold and leading way to look at rewards and giving customers what they want. With this program, we've been able to make it such that we can make any seat available on any flight for our Rapid Rewards customers for rewards booking, which is unique in the industry.

What we want to be able to do is provide it whenever they want it, whenever they need it, at the right cost point, and to meet their needs.



The other thing it does is allows our current and potential members the flexibility in how they both earn miles and points and how they use them for rewards -- being able to plan ahead and allowing them to save some significant points.

The same is true of how we provide IT as a service. What we want to be able to do is provide it whenever they want it, whenever they need it, at the right cost point, and to meet their needs. We've got some of the best customers in the world and they like to do things for themselves. We want to allow them to do that for themselves and be able to provide our employees the same areas.

If you've been on a Southwest flight, you've seen our flight crews, our in-flight team, really trying to have fun and trying to make Southwest a fun place to work and to be, and we just want to continue to support that in a number of different ways.

Gardner: You have also had some very significant challenges. You're growing rapidly. Your Southwest.com website is a crucial and growing part of your revenue stream. You've had mergers, acquisitions, and integrations as a result of that, and as we just discussed, the expectations of your consumers, your customers, are ramping up as well -- more data, more mobile devices, more ways to intercept the business processes that support your overall products and services.

So with all those requirements, tell me a little bit about the how. How in IT have you been able to create common infrastructures, reduce redundancy, and then yet still ramp up to meet these challenging requirements?

Significant volume

Young: As you all know, Southwest.com is a very large travel site, one of the largest in the industry -- not just airlines, but the travel industry as a whole. Over 80 percent of our customers and consumers book travel directly on Southwest.com. As you may know, we have fare sales a couple of times a year, and that can drive a significant volume.

What we've been able to do and how we have been able to meet some of those challenges is through a number of different VMware products. One of the core products is VMware itself, if we talk about vSphere, vMotion, etc., to be able to provide that virtualization. You can get a 1-to-10 virtualization depending on which type of servers and blades you're using, which helps us on the infrastructure side of the house to maintain that and have the storage, physical, and electrical capacity in our data centers.

But it also allows us, as we're moving, consolidating, and expanding these different data centers, to be able to move that virtual machine (VM) seamlessly between points. Then, it doesn’t matter where it’s running.

That allows us the capacity. So if we have a fare sale and I need to add capacity on some of our services, it gives our us and our team that run the infrastructure the ability to bring up new services on new VMs seamlessly. It plugs right into how we're doing things, so that internal cloud allows us not to experience blips.

It's been a great add for us from a capacity management perspective and being able to get the right capacity, with the right applications, at the right time. It allows us to manage that in such a way that it’s transparent to our end-users so they don’t notice any of this is going on in the background, and the experience is not different.

It's been a great add for us from a capacity management perspective and being able to get the right capacity, with the right applications, at the right time.



Gardner: I understand that you're at a fairly high level of virtualization. Is that a place where you plan to stay? Are you going to pursue higher levels? Where do you expect to go with that?

Young: I'll give you a little bit of background. We started our virtualized environments about 18 months ago. We went from a very small amount of virtualization to what we coined our Server 2.0 strategy, which was really the combination of commodity-based hardware blades with VMware on that.

And that allowed us last year in the first and second quarter to grow from several hundred VMs to over several thousand, which is where we're at today in the production environment. If you talk about production, development, and test, production is just one of those environments.

It has allowed us to scale that very rapidly without having to add a thousand physical servers. And it has been a tremendous benefit for us in managing our power, space, and cooling in the data center, along with allowing our engineers who are doing the day-to-day work to have a single way to manage it, deploy, and move stuff around even more automatically. They don’t have to mess with that anymore, VMware just takes care of the different products that are part of the VMware Suite.

Gardner: And your confidence, has it risen to the level where you're looking at 70, 80, 90, even more percent of virtualization? How do you expect to end that journey?

Ready for the evolution

Young: I would love to be at 100 percent virtualized. That would be fantastic. I think unfortunately we still have some manufacturers and software vendors -- and we call them vendors, because typically we don’t say partners -- who decide they are not going to support their software running in the virtualized environment. That can create problems, especially when you need to keep some of those systems up 24 x 7, 365, with 99.95 percent availability.

We're hoping that changes, but the goal would be to move as much as we can, because if I take a look at virtualization, we are kind of our internal private cloud. What that’s really doing is getting us ready for the evolution that’s going to happen over the next, 5, 7, or 10 years, where you may have applications and data deployed out in a cloud, a virtual private cloud, public cloud if the security becomes good enough, where you've got to bring all that stuff together.

If you need to have huge amounts of capacity and two applications are not co-located that need to talk back and forth, you've got to be much more efficient on the calls and the communications and make that seamless for the customer.

This is giving us the platform to start learning more and start developing those solutions that don’t need to be collocated in a data center or in one or two data centers, but can really be pushed wherever it makes sense. That could be from wherever the most efficient data center is from a green technology perspective, use the least electricity and cooling power, to alternate energy, to what makes sense at the time of the year.

That is a huge add and a huge win for us in the IT community to be able to start utilizing some of that virtualization and even across physical locations.

It allows us to deploy that stuff within minutes, whereas it used to take engineers manually going to configure each thing separately. That’s been a huge savings.



Gardner: So as you've ramped up on your virtualization, I imagine you have been able to enjoy some benefits from that in terms of capital expense, hardware, and energy. How about in some of the areas around configuration management and policy management. Is there a centralization feature to this that also is paying dividends?

Young: That’s a huge cornerstone of the suite of tools that we've been able to get through VMware is being able to deploy custom solutions and even some of the off-the-shelf solutions on a standard platform, standard operating systems, standard configurations, standard containers for the web, etc. It allows us to deploy that stuff within minutes, whereas it used to take engineers manually going to configure each thing separately. That’s been a huge savings.

The other thing is, once you get the configuration right and you have it automated, you don’t have to worry about people taking some human missteps. Those are going to happen, and you've got to go back and redo something. That elimination of error and the speed at which we can do that is helping. As you expand your server footprints and the number of VMs and servers you have without having to add to your staff, you can actually do more with the same number of or fewer staff.

Gardner: I wonder how you feel about desktop virtualization. Another feature that we've seen in the field in the marketplace is those that make good use of server virtualization are in a better position to then take that a step further and extend it out through PC-over-IP and other approaches to delivering the whole desktop experience. Is that something that you're involved with or experimenting with? How do you feel about that?

Young: This has been going on and off in the IT industry for the past 10-15 years, if you talk about Net PCs and some of the other things. What’s really driven us to take a look at it is that around our environment we can control security on virtual desktops, etc., very clearly, very quickly and deliver that in a great service.

New mobile devices

The other thing that’s leading to this is, not just what we talked about in security, is the plethora of brand new mobile devices -- iPhones, iPads, Android devices, Galaxy. HP has a new device. RIM has a new device. We need to be able to deliver our services in a more ubiquitous manner. The virtual desktop allows us to go ahead and deliver some of those where I don’t need to control the hardware. I just control the interface, which can protect our systems virtually, and it’s really pretty neat.

I was on one of my devices the other day and was able to go in via virtual desktop that was set up to be able to use some of the core systems without having all that stuff loaded on my machine, and that was via the Internet. So it worked out phenomenally well.

Now, there are some issues that you have to do depending on whether you're doing collocation and facility, but you can easily get through some of that with the right virtualization setup and networking.

Gardner: So you have come an awfully long way. You say 18 months ago you were only embarking on virtualization, but now you're already talking about hybrid clouds and mobile enablement and wide area network optimization. How is that you have been able to bite off so much so soon? A lot of people would be intimidated, do more of that crawl-walk-run, with the emphasis on the crawl and walk parts?

Young: Well, I am very fortunate. I might come up with the vision of where we want to go and this is where IT is going, and I am very fortunate to have some very good and phenomenal engineers working on this, working through it, all the issues, all the little challenges that pop up along the way in order to do this.

It’s what our team would say is pretty cool technology, and it gets them excited about doing something new and different as well. I've got a couple of managers -- Tim Pilson, Mitch Mitchell -- and their teams, and some really good people.

So I really have to give credit to the teams that are working with me, my team who gets it done, and VMware for providing such a great product.



Jason Norman is one of the people, and Doug Rowland also has been very involved with getting this rolled out. It’s amazing what a core set of just a few people can do with the right technology, the right attitude, and passion to get it done. I've just been very impressed with their, what we call warrior spirit here at Southwest Airlines -- just not giving up, doing what it takes to get it done, and being able to utilize that with some of the VMware products.

It extends beyond that team. Our development teams use Spring and some other of the VMware products as well. If we run into an issue, it’s just like VMware on the development side of the house and product side of the house is really part of our extended team. They take it, they listen, and they come back with a fix and a patch in literally a day or two, rather than some other vendors with whom you might wait weeks or months and it might never make it to you.

So I really have to give credit to the teams that are working with me, my team who gets it done, and VMware for providing such a great product that the engineers want to use it, can use it, and can understand it, and make huge amounts of progress in a very short period of time.

Gardner: Well, great. It’s a very interesting and compelling story. We've been talking with Southwest Airlines and how they are continuing to innovate and adapt and using IT as a compelling strategic differentiator.

Our guest has been Bob Young, Vice President of Technology and Chief Technology Officer at Southwest Airlines. Thanks so much, Bob.

Young: Well, thank you.

Gardner: I'm Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions, your host throughout this series of VMware-sponsored BriefingsDirect discussions. Thanks again for listening, and come back next time.

Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes/iPod. Download the transcript. Sponsor: VMware.

Transcript of a BriefingsDirect podcast on how travel giant Southwest Airlines is using virtualization to streamline customer service applications. Copyright Interarbor Solutions, LLC, 2005-2011. All rights reserved.

You may also be interested in: