United Airlines deploys software 75% quicker using the Harness DevOps platform

Mark Samuels Profile picture for user Mark Samuels April 26, 2023
The airline is using the technology to support its ambitious tech-led change programme and to keep up with fast-changing business requirements.

united airlines

United Airlines is using the Harness DevOps platform to support digital transformation and develop applications quickly, securely and effectively.

The airline wants to move 80% of its workload to the cloud on Amazon Web Services as part of its United Next digital transformation strategy. As part of this program, Rajeswari Koppala, Senior Manager of DevOps at United Airlines, says United saw the need to use innovation to enhance its software development capabilities and processes.

Added pressure came in the form of the coronavirus pandemic and its aftermath. The airline industry's requirements kept changing dynamically in response to new regulations during the pandemic. Now, companies like United are looking to use technology to help them become more successful in the Vaccine Economy, says Koppala:

That’s brought a lot of pressure on the developers to keep up with the new changes that are happening at the business side. They are supposed to deliver new features quicker than before, because the changes are sporadic and the changes are too frequent for them to cope with. So, we identified a gap with the existing toolset to catch up with that speed.

As part of its digital transformation effort, United has moved from monolithic applications to micro-services. This move has required a big increase in scalability. The legacy tools that Koppala and her colleagues used to manage DevOps requirements couldn’t cope. These legacy tools required manual configuration and there were long deployment lead times:

The challenge for us was that this cloud enablement and migration brought a lot of complexity – when you subscribe to the cloud, you're subscribing to change. And the pandemic only enhanced the need for continuous change. So, how do we still keep up with security standards and achieve agility? We need a tool that is supporting us with governance on top of the agility that we’re providing.

Selecting a platform

United decided to use continuous integration and continuous delivery (CI/CD) tools to introduce automation and provide guardrails for application development process. Koppala says it’s important to recognise that DevOps at a start-up is different than running similar operations in a blue-chip enterprise such as United, which has hundreds or applications running on a range of tech stacks, standardizations and orchestrations:

When you want to bring standards or when you want to modernise anything on such scale, you do need a tool that can provide you with a platform instead of innovating for each and every application separately. So, I think that’s where Harness fits very well. It provides a thread for us to bring this whole DevOps 'modernization-as-a-platform' to application teams and developers.

United evaluated five different tools against a set of key requirements, such as infrastructure as code, application CI/CD, and security, testing and orchestration. The team created a detailed report of how each tool performed against the requirements:

We needed a partner to enable these requirements. We evaluated the tools and Harness met many of our demands. So, our evaluation approach was, ‘These are the tools that are available, but what is the right fit for our requirements?’.

At the end of the evaluation process, Harness came out as the “clear winner” and the tool has been live in United since late 2022. On a day-to-day basis, the platform supports self-service deployments. By creating a help ticket, Harness uses automation to manage the delivery process for developers with minimal manual intervention, explains Koppala:

We wanted to use Harness in a little bit of a different way – not only as application for CI/CD, but we also wanted to use it to evangelise the whole DevOps-based modernization that we were looking to achieve. We are trying to put wrappers on top of our well-vetted templates. They're security-approved and they have all the standards ingrained into them.

Delivering business benefits

United developers can now use Harness to select a template and start building a pipeline for each new service. The technology automates reporting and removes a large amount of manual effort, giving developers more time focus on value-adding activities, such as working on new features for the United Next initiative. Koppala says: 

They don't necessarily understand what we are doing behind the scenes in Harness. They only see that they have the pipelines they need. We abstracted a lot of complexity. So, they're basically not dealing with the 100 tools that we have in the background. We are taking care of all the complexity on behalf of developers.

The benefits of Harness can be measured quantitatively, according to Koppala. The technology has helped to accelerate software deployment cycles by 75% and reduced the build process from 22 minutes to just five. She says there’s qualitative benefits, too:

The implementation can scale to any number of applications. So, it brings standardisation that an enterprise like United requires, and it sets the standard as a default way of working. We realised in just a few months that self-service is the way to go. You cannot ask developers to do every job. They need to focus on development and leave the rest to platform engineering or DevOps teams.”

Koppala reiterates that her longer-term aim is to move beyond CI/CD and to think about how Harness can be used to support software development in the round:

In larger organizations, people are so focused on CI/CD that they undermine other areas, like source code management, security, or telemetry, such as logging and monitoring. Harness provides a very tightly integrated framework for standardisation. So, we're trying to bring change and, in the next two years, we want to put that integrated platform in place that lifts up all areas of development, not only CI/CD.

When it comes to other tech and business leaders who are thinking of implementing Harness, Koppala believes the technology provides a great tool for larger enterprises that have hundreds of teams and applications to manage:

This platform has a fantastic level of integration with hundreds of tools. That's a great thing. So, I think it has a very well thought through set of features that are put together to make DevOps easy for larger enterprises.

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