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Case Study: Southwest Airlines' Productivity Takes Off with Virtualization

Enabling 'IT as a service'

The next BriefingsDirect 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.

This story comes as part of a special BriefingsDirect podcast series from a recent VMworld 2011 Conference. The series explores the latest in cloud computing and virtualization infrastructure developments.

Here to share 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.]

Here are some excerpts:

Gardner: We have heard a lot about IT as a service. How have you at Southwest been able to keep IT squarely in the role of enablement?

Young: 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.

People want to be able to get on, 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: 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.

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 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.

Gardner: How in IT have you been able to create common infrastructures, reduce redundancy, and then yet still ramp up to meet all your requirements?

Significant volume

Young: 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.

... 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: 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: How you feel about desktop virtualization?

Young: 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.

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At Interarbor Solutions, we create the analysis and in-depth podcasts on enterprise software and cloud trends that help fuel the social media revolution. As a veteran IT analyst, Dana Gardner moderates discussions and interviews get to the meat of the hottest technology topics. We define and forecast the business productivity effects of enterprise infrastructure, SOA and cloud advances. Our social media vehicles become conversational platforms, powerfully distributed via the BriefingsDirect Network of online media partners like ZDNet and As founder and principal analyst at Interarbor Solutions, Dana Gardner created BriefingsDirect to give online readers and listeners in-depth and direct access to the brightest thought leaders on IT. Our twice-monthly BriefingsDirect Analyst Insights Edition podcasts examine the latest IT news with a panel of analysts and guests. Our sponsored discussions provide a unique, deep-dive focus on specific industry problems and the latest solutions. This podcast equivalent of an analyst briefing session -- made available as a podcast/transcript/blog to any interested viewer and search engine seeker -- breaks the mold on closed knowledge. These informational podcasts jump-start conversational evangelism, drive traffic to lead generation campaigns, and produce strong SEO returns. Interarbor Solutions provides fresh and creative thinking on IT, SOA, cloud and social media strategies based on the power of thoughtful content, made freely and easily available to proactive seekers of insights and information. As a result, marketers and branding professionals can communicate inexpensively with self-qualifiying readers/listeners in discreet market segments. BriefingsDirect podcasts hosted by Dana Gardner: Full turnkey planning, moderatiing, producing, hosting, and distribution via blogs and IT media partners of essential IT knowledge and understanding.