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Inside Singapore Airlines’ cloud and DevOps journey

A team of engineers at Singapore’s flagship carrier shed light on how they are overcoming challenges in embracing cloud computing and DevOps

Like most enterprises embarking on their cloud and DevOps journey, Singapore Airlines (SIA) has faced challenges in keeping up with the capabilities of different public cloud providers, weighing multiple priorities and managing talent.

In a presentation by a team of SIA engineers at Cloud Expo Asia 2019 in Singapore that closely mirrored those challenges, the engineers revealed that Alibaba Cloud, which the airline is looking to use as it expands its business in China, was unfamiliar to them at first – only to learn that Alibaba’s infrastructure services are similar to those of Amazon Web Services.

Lee Chee Yong, an agile coach and principal technologist at SIA, said that although taking advantage of capabilities offered by various cloud suppliers to suit different applications and business needs was a good thing, enterprises would have to grapple with moving data and VPN (virtual private network) settings, for example, from one cloud to another.

Complicating matters are cloud migration efforts where systems from on-premise servers are being moved to public cloud services. In SIA’s case, these include the Jenkins open-source automation server, along with the need to extend automation pipelines to the cloud, said Rohit Sawant, one of the airline’s quality assurance (QA) engineers.

Then there are multiple tools and frameworks that developers use to build applications. Lee said that although developers should be given the flexibility to work with their preferred tools and programming languages, maintaining different application stacks could become a nightmare.

“One of the key things you could look into is to try out different applications stacks, understand their pros and cons, converge on one technology in the user interface and back-end layers, and maybe work with just one cloud provider at the start,” Lee advised attendees at the event.

In most DevOps setups, engineers are also expected to be well-versed in multiple functions, from software development and automation testing to deployment using CI/CD (continuous integration/continuous deployment) pipelines.

“Rome wasn’t built in a day, but there’s also a limit to how much we can do,” said Lee. “That’s why it’s important to prioritise different demands based on our business goals.”

According to Lee, SIA has set three main business goals – growing the company’s revenue stream, improving customer satisfaction, and enhancing workforce efficiency.

“From our scorecard last month, the company is doing well in terms of revenue,” he said. “But we’re not doing that well from a customer satisfaction point of view, as a lot of new features that we’ve rolled out were not fully tested.”

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Lee added that the company could spin up more testing environments in the cloud before rolling out a feature. “Among all the technical tasks in our backlog, it’s important to see which ones will help us to achieve our business goals, so prioritisation is key,” he said.

Workplace issues should not be neglected, either. SIA recently embarked on a workplace transformation initiative, which includes removing office cubicles to foster closer collaboration between teams.

As a result, some developers face more interruptions from colleagues while they are coding. Lee’s advice to developers is to, again, weigh competing priorities and request some quiet time to code and to do some quality thinking.

In complex IT environments with interconnected systems and software dependencies, a coding error or misconfiguration could adversely affect mission-critical systems and business operations. Lee said monitoring is critical, but warned that alerts on IT issues should only be sent to specific people to avoid falling into the complacency trap.

Lee also touched on cloud cost management, which he said was necessary to avoid hefty bills. A “feedback loop” in the form of cloud usage reports should be made available to departments that are spinning up cloud resources, he said.

“This will make sure cloud adoption does not become expensive because you didn’t switch off a server,” he said. “And it isn’t just about the hardware; it’s also about licensing costs incurred by your software stack running on top of the server.”

With cloud skills in high demand, SIA also faces challenges in recruiting talent. Besides sharing interesting projects that the airline is working on – such as recommendation engines and cognitive services – to attract talent, the company also encourages engineers to attend training and certification courses.

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