Cathay Pacific embraces cloud in digital transformation gig
By Edwin Yapp December 20, 2017
- Some 40% of workloads are already on the cloud with more to come
- Trialling machine learning for fraud detection along with other cloud features
WHILE cloud computing is considered by many to be the ‘new normal’ in today’s global business environment, few companies would fully embrace it as much as they can, save for those who firmly believe that the cloud can bring more benefit than harm.
One company that began with such thinking is Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd, which has committed some 40% – and even more workloads to come – of its IT infrastructure onto the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud platform in the last two years in a bid to gain stability, availability, reliability and efficiency.
The Hong Kong-based regional airline said its journey to the cloud began some two years ago, when it realised it was facing several major challenges to its ageing IT systems, which had directly affected its customer experience.
Cathay Pacific general manager for IT Lawrence Fong said the company had been suffering a backlash of complaints to do with everything from check-ins over the web and mobile, security incidents, to downtimes experienced by its IT systems.
“We had quite a lot of infrastructure issues due to our usage of old IT systems and legacy platforms,” Fong told a group of Asean-based media at the Amazon Web Services Inc’s re:Invent 2017 cloud conference last month.
“Security incidents were happening every day,” Fong candidly admitted. “Customers weren’t happy and our operations staff were equally unhappy. We needed to change, modernise our infrastructure and get into a digital future.”
Fong said when Cathay Pacific evaluated what needed to be done, it had a goal of future-proofing its IT system and making it sustainable and viable for at least the next decade.
Besides these criteria, the new system had to be able to embrace new technologies such as software-defined networking, web and mobile services, advanced data analytics, and software-as-a-service (SaaS) as part of its upgrade.
“The project was part of Cathay Pacific’s digital transformation programme, which we believe will help us gain a competitive advantage over competitors and that customers will be able to experience these changes too.”
Fong said the airline evaluated a number of cloud players besides AWS, including IBM Softlayer, Google Cloud Platform, Microsoft Azure and Alibaba Cloud.
After much consideration and many trials, Fong said the airline selected AWS as its primary cloud vendor due to its widest product offering, price, and innovation it can bring to Cathay Pacific.
Fong revealed that there were some apps still running IBM Softlayer, which the airline will migrate away from in time to come. It also had some apps on Microsoft and Alibaba Cloud but none on Google Cloud.
Pressed further on why AWS was chosen, Fong said AWS was the leader in the cloud game at the time it made its evaluation and had helped the airline go through its digital transformation. He did not however rule out working with other cloud players in the future, noting that that it “would evaluate accordingly” as to what other providers can do in due course.
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‘Biting the bullet’
Cathay Pacific’s journey towards the cloud may be a bold move but it wasn’t without its challenges, revealed Fong. Currently some 40% of the airline’s workload is on the cloud but in the early days, it had concerns over security and privacy issues, Fong (pic, right) shared.
“The biggest risk for us was that the cloud wasn’t secure or reliable, at least perception-wise,” he explained. “The old thinking was that if you can’t see it, you can’t control it, and we experienced push back. And technical people were concerned whether we would have trouble moving our technologies to the cloud easily or not.”
Fong said in the end, the company did its due diligence as best as it could, “bit the bullet,” and initially migrated small workloads to the cloud. Eventually, it moved more critical workloads while becoming more comfortable in doing so.
Asked if Cathay Pacific has a return-on-investment (ROI) goal, Fong said, “Our goal wasn’t about ROI but about availability and reliability.”
Quizzed as to what lessons the company learnt from moving to the cloud, Fong said his team had to learn to shuffle resources and organise themselves into vertical development teams, which he explained involved becoming more product- rather than project-focused.
“Every team needed to be vertical – from the user experience and interface, development and platform to infrastructure, operations and maintenance – every one needed to focus on the technology stack and development lifecycle.
“Additionally, by using cloud, we adopted a devops and agile methodology to help us to speed up the whole development lifecycle,” Fong explained.
Asked if any staff were affected by these changes either in terms of roles or reduction in headcount, Fong said the team did not cut any resources and had the same number of people in it but that they just had to do things differently.
At the end of the first phase of its transformation, Fong claimed that Cathay Pacific’s customers began noticing the changes in that everything from the apps and web services were more stable, they didn’t crash as much as before and the performance was faster. New products were also rolled out much more quickly, especially those that enhanced customer experiences.
“We significantly improved our stability and availability, as we experienced almost zero down time,” he claimed. “Our time-to-market also improved and our development lifecycle costs reduced by 67%. Other costs such as operational and project development costs reduced by half.”
When asked if Cathay Pacific would hold back migrating some sensitive workloads such as financials to the cloud, Fong was bullish, noting that they plan to move as much as they can onto the cloud, although he conceded that not all workloads could be migrated due to the legacy nature.
“Actually, our financials are already in the cloud and we’re comfortable with that,” he said. “We plan to move more onto the cloud and use more services from AWS and other cloud players as they roll out their features.”
On what kind of features it plans to use, Fong said the airline is closely watching the newly launched Amazon Elastic Container Service for Kubernetes (Amazon EKS) as well as multiple master copy database, and machine learning features from the cloud vendor.
“Fraud detection and prevention is typically where machine learning can be used,” he said, adding that the airline is doing a proof of concept with AWS.
“Some cases we may get a ‘customer’ logging on from a Russian IP address and buying a ticket using an American credit card that goes from Bangkok to Hong Kong, for a Japanese national. Or someone who purchased a ticket 24 hours before departure under suspicious means.
“These are but a few scenarios which have distinct patterns which is a challenge for us now. We feel machine learning will be able to help learn these patterns and help us make the right decisions.”
Edwin Yapp reports from the AWS re:Invent 2017 in Las Vegas at the invitation of Amazon Web Services Inc. All editorials are independent. He is contributing editor to Digital News Asia and an executive consultant at Tech Research Asia, an advisory firm that translates technology into business outcomes for executives in Asia Pacific.
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