Nordic airline averts business disaster with application performance monitoring

Following an emergency decision to move to Amazon Web Services, Iceland’s Wow Air has wholeheartedly bought into the cloud

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Icelandic airline Wow Air averted disaster through the use of application performance monitoring software when it embarked on a major expansion with new routes to North America.

Had the software not alerted the company to the problems in its IT infrastructure before the major new business launch, there would have been a disaster of the scale that could have put the airline out of business, according to Wow Air’s IT director, Kristjan Thorvaldsson.

Wow Air began life five years ago, servicing Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris from its base in Reykjavic before expanding across Europe. When it launched, it had two Airbus A320 aircraft running short haul journeys, but today has 12 aircraft of which three are Airbus A330s for long haul flights.

But a few years ago it identified its Europe-focused service as a barrier to growth, due to the abundance of low-cost competitors such as easyJet and Ryanair, and decided to start servicing North America.

This started with flights to Boston and Baltimore from its hub in Iceland, but had it not been for the roll-out of software to monitor and report on the performance of applications, it might never have got off the ground.

When the new routes were being prepared for sale, Wow Air had its entire IT infrastructure, including booking system, hosted at a small local supplier’s premises, with networking services provided on top of this.

Thorvaldsson decided to do a load test on the infrastructure because the airline was anticipating a lot of traffic on the website, much more than it ever had before.

“For the test, we took the number of concurrent users we expected on the site at launch and multiplied it by three,” he said. “We did the load test and it was horrible. If we had gone live with that, we would have gone bankrupt.”

He added that servers would have gone down and the company would have been completely offline.

“We were unhappy with how that progressed, and it was a bit of a disappointment because we were proud of what we were doing. It was like a slap in the face,” said Thorvaldsson.

Finding the right performance management monitoring tool

An answer had to be found quickly with time running out. Through Swedish partner Ezy, he found out about an application performance management monitoring tool from New Relic.

Wow Air’s IT team decided to give it a go, and installed New Relic software on its servers. After running it for about half an hour, the team saw a lot of problems in the data it collected. This gave the IT team evidence to support their suspicions regarding weaknesses in the IT infrastructure.

“It pointed to errors we needed to address right away,” he said. “We were amazed it could tell us all these things so quickly.

“Our infrastructure was poor, and the New Relic software verified as much after just the first load test. It provided us with data to prove these issues and bluntly told us things that needed to be said.”

This information came two weeks ahead of the launch of Wow Air’s North American routes, and the firm faced a decision over what to do about its infrastructure. The cloud was seen as a potential answer.

Making the cloud leap

The IT team decided it had nothing to lose, and put an exact replica of its infrastructure in the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud. “One Sunday, we set up the entire infrastructure for the booking engine,” said Thorvaldsson. “We then load tested with New Relic for a week, and yet again we gained valuable insight into how we should tune and make changes.”

After a week of tests, the IT team felt confident enough to go live in the AWS environment with the booking engine. “This turned out to be a great success, because a few days later, we started the launch of sales to Boston and Baltimore and it turned out the traffic was seven times greater than expected.”

“You can imagine how things would have turned out with the old infrastructure. I wouldn’t be talking to you now,” he said.

Two and a half years on, the company’s North American business is growing, along with its fleet of aircraft. It will add another five aircraft this year, taking its total to 17.

Such has been its success, Wow Air has now moved its entire infrastructure to AWS and uses New Relic to monitor application performance.

Wow IT department is built to try things out

The success came out of the IT department being prepared to experiment. In fact, the IT teams at Wow Air are structured with this in mind.

It has about 40 people in its overall IT team, which is a separate division known as Wow Labs.

The name of the IT division gives some clues as to its approach to enterprise IT. “We like to experiment,” said Thorvaldsson. “Some of these experiments work and some don’t, but the main thing is that we learn from them.”

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Wow Labs itself is divided into two parts, with a traditional IT department known as Sysops and the other half known as Dev. The latter, as the name suggests, is the department that works on application development.

In 2016, the IT division implemented 16 new systems, including customer-focused apps and more heavy-duty flight management and check-in systems.

“We like to experiment. Some of them work and some don’t, but the main thing is that we learn from them”
Kristjan Thorvaldsson, Wow Air

The pace of change and volume of releases has been partly made possible due to the unfortunate closure of another Icelandic company.

When gaming company Plain Vanilla, which was behind online trivia game QuizUp, went out of business, it left skilled software experts in Iceland looking for work. “We were at this time embarking on a substantial digital journey and ended up hiring 10 of the best programmers they had,” said Thorvaldsson.

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