Advanced IT Monitoring Delivers Predictive Diagnostics Focus to United Airlines, Slashes Outage Response Times, Aids in Massive Merger
Advanced IT Monitoring Delivers Predictive Diagnostics
Focus to United Airlines, Slashes Outage Response Times,
Aids in Massive Merger
Transcript of a BrieﬁngsDirect podcast on how HP tools facilitated a giant airline merger that
brought many IT systems and application together.
Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes. Sponsor: HP
Dana Gardner: Hello, and welcome to the next edition of the HP Discover Performance
Podcast Series. I'm Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions,
your moderator for this ongoing discussion of IT innovation and how it’s
making an impact on people’s lives.
Once again, we're focusing on how IT leaders are improving their services'
performance to deliver better experiences and payoffs for businesses and end
users alike, and this time we're coming to you directly from the HP Discover
2013 Conference in Las Vegas. [Disclosure: HP is a sponsor of BrieﬁngsDirect podcasts.]
Our next innovation case study interview highlights how United Airlines demanded better
performance and monitoring from IT and got it. We'll see how United not only had to better track
thousands of systems and applications from its newly merged company, but it also had to dig
deeper and orchestrate an assortment of management elements to produce the right diagnostic
focus and thereby reduce outages from hours to mere minutes.
We'll learn more about how United has gained predictive monitoring and more effective and
efﬁcient IT performance problem solving from our guest. Welcome Kevin Tucker. He is the
Managing Director of Platform Engineering at United Airlines.
Kevin Tucker: Thanks for having me.
Gardner: We're glad you're here. It seems that your situation could be easily summed up as an
issue of scale. You have thousands of applications. You had major companies, big, big companies
coming together, with Continental and United.
Tell me about how IT also was a scale issue. You're not only dealing with applications and
platforms. You're dealing with IT staff, culture, and departments. Maybe you can help us
understand the challenge that you faced as you tried to make things better and your performance
Tucker: As you stated, the airline industry is one of the most complex IT environments in
existence. I think it's really difﬁcult for the average ﬂyer to understand all of the logistics that
have to happen to get a ﬂight off the ground.
There are millions of messages moving through the system, from weight and balance, to
reservation changes. There's the Network Operations Center (NOC) that has to
make sure that we're on time with slots. There are fuel concerns. We have to
ensure that with all of the connections that are happening out there that, the
ﬂights that feed into our hubs carrying our passengers get in on time, so that
folks can make their connecting ﬂights.
Moving people around is a very serious business. I have had people say, "Why
do you guys take it so seriously? You're not launching nukes, or you are not
curing cancer." But at the end of the day, people are counting on us to get them from point A to
That might be the CEO that’s trying to go out and close a big business deal. It might be someone
trying to get to see an ailing family member, or someone who's lined up for what could be a life-
changing interview. It's our job to get them there on time, in a stress-free manner, and reliably.
Gardner: Back to the scale issue, it's obviously a daunting task, but to an IT department, what
are you dealing with in order to pull all these resources together, to make the applications that
really are what drive many of these processes?
Tucker: We've had a very challenging last couple of years. We recently took two large,
complex IT environments and merged them. We picked some applications from
Continental, some applications from United, and we had to make these applications
interface with each other when they were originally never designed to do so. In the
process, we had to scale many of these systems up, and we did that at an incredible
Over and above that, with the complex challenges of merging the two IT systems, we had this
phenomenon that's building in the environment that can't be denied, and that's the explosion of
mobile. So it was really a perfect storm for us.
We were trying to integrate the systems, as well as stay out in front of our customer demands
with respect to mobile and self-service. It became a daunting challenge, and it became very
apparent to us going in, that we needed good vital signs for us to be able to survive, for us to be
able to deliver that quality of service our customers come to expect from us.
From my perspective, I have several customer sets. I have the executives. We don’t really know
how we're doing if we can't measure something. So we need to be able to provide them metrics,
so that they understood how we were running IT.
I have the United employees, and that could be the line mechanic, to the gate agent, to the lobby
agent. And then we have our ﬂyers. And all of those people deserve reliable data and systems
that are available at all times. So when you factor all of that in, we knew we needed good vital
signs, so that we could ensure these applications were functioning as designed.
We didn't get there as fast as we would like. It was quite a feat to integrate these systems and we
landed on a collapsed Passenger Service System (PSS) system back in March of 2012.
Unfortunately, given that we were a little late to the game, we had some tough days, but we
rallied. We brought HP to the table and told them that we don't want to be average. We want to be
We created a battle plan. We got the troops energized. We deployed the power that's available to
us within the HP Management Suite. We formed a battle plan and we executed that.
It wasn't without challenge, but we are very proud of the work that we've done in a very short
period of time. Within an eight-month journey, we have gone from being average at best, to I
think one of the best around, with the stuff we have gotten after.
So it can be done. It just takes discipline, commitment, and a will to be the best. I'm very proud
of the team and what they've accomplished.
Gardner: Kevin, I like the way you refer to this as "vital signs." When you put in place the
tools, the ability to get diagnostics, when you had that information at your ﬁngertips, what did
you see? Was it a ﬁre hose or a balanced scorecard? What did you get and what did you need to
do in order to make it more actionable?
Using all the tools
Tucker: We own quite a bit of the HP product set. We decided that in order to be great, we
need to use all of the tools on our tool belt. So we had a methodical approach. We started with
getting the infrastructure covered. We did that through making sure SiteScope was watching
servers for health. We made sure the storage was monitored, the databases are monitored, the
middleware components, the messaging queues, etc., as well as all of the network infrastructure.
What really started to shine the light on how we were performing out there, as we started rolling
all of those events up and correlating them into BSM, was that we were able to understand what
impact we were having throughout the environment, because we understood the topology-based
event correlation. That was sort of the ﬁrst model we went at.
You mentioned diagnostics. We started deploying that very aggressively. We have diagnostics
deployed on every one of our Java app servers. We also have deployed diagnostics on our .NET
What that has done for us is that we were able to proactively get in front of some of these issues.
When we ﬁrst started dabbling in diagnostics, it was more of a forensics type activity. We would
use that after we were in an incident. Now we use diagnostics to actually proactively prevent
We're watching for memory utilization, database connection counts, and time spent in garbage
collection, etc. Those actually ﬁre alerts that weave their way through BSM. They cut a Service
Manager ticket, and we have automation that picks that Service Manager ticket up, assumes
ownership, goes out and does remediation, and refreshes the monitor. When that’s successful, we
close the ticket out, all the while updating the Service Manager ticket to ensure we're ITIL
In many cases we have gotten many of those restorals down in under ﬁve minutes, where before
it was way north of an hour.
Through the use of these tools, we have certainly gained better insight into how our applications
are using database connections and how much time we're spending in garbage collection. It
really helps us tune, tweak, and size the environments in a much more predictive fashion versus
more of a guess. So that's been invaluable to us.
You're probably picking up on a theme that's largely operationally based. We've begun making
pretty good inroads into DevOps, and that's very important for us. We're deploying these agents
and these monitors all the way back in the development lifecycle. They follow applications from
dev to stage, so that when we get to prod, the monitors we know are solid. Application teams are
able to address performance issues in development.
These tools have really aided the development teams that are participating in the DevOps space
Gardner: HP does have a lot of product on the development test and deploy side of things, and
also a lot of management and capabilities on the production side. Is there something about the
ability for HP to span across these activities that led you to choose them and how did you decide
on them versus some of the other alternatives?
Tucker: When we merged and got through the big integration I spoke of last year, clearly, we
were two companies. We had two products. It became very clear to us without a doubt that
because HP's depth and width that they could provide us across stacks and within those stacks,
being able to go up and down, they were the clear winner.
Then when you start further looking at, well, why are we reinventing the wheel once something
gets to production. When you look at the LoadRunner scripts, VuGen scripts that are created
back in the development and the QA cycle. Well, those are your production monitors and it
prevents us from having to perform double work, if you will.
That's a huge beneﬁt that we see in the suite. When you couple that with the diagnostic type
information I referred to, that's giving our development teams great insight way back in the
development cycle. As you look at the full lifecycle, the HP toolset allows you to span
development stage into production and provide a set of dashboards that allow for the developers
to understand how their sets of service are running.
We were very quickly able to bring them on board, because at the end of the day, there's the
human factor that sets in. What's in it for me? I hear you ops and engineering guys telling me we
need to monitor your application, but when you peel it back, I'm harkening back to my days
when I used to run software.
Developers are busy and when you show them value that the director of the middleware services
or business services has a dashboard, he can go look at how his services are performing. They
very quickly identify that value and they're very keen on not getting those calls at 3 o’clock in
It's a slam-dunk for us, and as I say, there was no doubt in our mind as we started down our
journey that the HP toolset just couldn't be rivaled in that space.
Gardner: You’ve been able to take problem times from hours to minutes. HP has recognized
that, and you’ve won an award here at HP Discover. Tell me a little about that and how you are
sharing some of the responsibility. You mentioned your team and you're proud of it.
Tucker: Yes, we're very proud of our accomplishment. We're living proof. We're in a complex,
fast-moving industry. We were starting from much further behind than we would have liked to,
and we bought off and believed in the tools. We used them partnering with HP and we were able
to come a long way.
What really started moving the dial for us with respect to remediation time and lowering mean
time to restore (MTTR) and drastically improving our availability is the use of diagnostics. It's
automated restorals for things that we can. We can't restore everything automatically, but if we
can take the noise away so our operations teams can focus on the tough stuff, that's what it's all
about with the BSM TBEC (Topology Based Event Coorelation) views, the event-based
Before, as we were making our journey, we started very quickly getting good at identifying an
issue before the customer called in. That was not always the case. And that's step one. You never
want a customer calling in and saying, "I want to let you know your application is down," and
you say, "Thank you very much. We'll take a look at that."
That shaves a few minutes, but honestly then the Easter egg hunt starts. Is it a server, a
network, a switch, the SAN, a database, or the application? So you start getting all of these
people on the phone, and they start sifting through logs and trying to understand what this alert
means with respect to the problem at hand. It's very difﬁcult when you have thousands of servers
and north of a thousand applications spread across ﬁve data centers. It's just very difﬁcult.
Through the use of correlated views, understanding the dependencies, and the item within the
infrastructure that's causing the problem turning red and bubbling up to the other applications
that are impacted, allows us to zero in and ﬁx that issue right off the bat, versus losing an hour of
getting people on checking things to ﬁgure out is it them or is it not.
So through automating what can be automated with restoral and having the event-based
correlation that is what caused our operational performance we go from what I would call maybe
a D- to an A+.
Gardner: Congratulations on the award. It's very impressive. Let's also talk about some other
types of paybacks. From the investments you make, you're getting payback in terms of your
brand being better preserved, customer satisfaction, speed, and performance. When people click
and they can buy a ticket, that's revenue, and that’s very clear to measure.
But it seems to me that this lifecycle approach across DevOps, puts you in a better position to
avail yourself of things like hybrid cloud models, where you need to move workloads to other
types of environments or security, where now you are able to look in your systems when there is
an event correlation that has a security issue attached, rather than just performance, or both.
Are you really now in a better position to move into some other areas around the types of the
environments for your production, as well as security or maybe there are some others that I
haven’t thought of that you're now able to pursue because of what you've been doing?
Tucker: As we've matured and have insight into our environment with metrics, we're able to stop
the ﬁreﬁghting mode. It's allowed us to step back and start working on engineering with respect
to how we utilize our assets. With all of this data, we now understand how the servers are
running. We understand, through getting engaged early in DevOps with some of the rich
information we get through load testing and whatnot, we're able to size our environments better.
As part of that, it gives us ﬂexibility with respect to where we place some of these applications,
because now we're working with scientiﬁc data, versus gut feel and emotion. That's enabling us
to build a new data center and, as part of that, we're deﬁnitely looking at increasing our
The biggest beneﬁt we're seeing, now that we have gotten to more or less a stable operation, is
that we're able to focus in on the engineering and strategically look at what our data center of the
future looks like. As part of that, we're making a heavy investment in cloud, private right now.
We may look at bursting some stuff to the public side, but right now, we're focused on an internal
cloud. For us, cloud means automated server build, self-service, a robot that’s building the
environment so that the human error is taken out. When that server comes online, it's an asset
manager, it's got monitors in place, and it was built the same way.
Now that we are moving out of the ﬁreﬁghting mode and more into the strategic and engineering
mode, that's deﬁnitely paying big dividends for us.
Gardner: Very good. I'm afraid we will have to leave it there. We've been learning about how
United Airlines has demanded better performance from its IT organization and has gotten it. And
we've seen how they have orchestrated an assortment of management elements to produce the
right diagnostic focus and reduce outages from hours to mere minutes.
So join me in thanking our guest, Kevin Tucker, Managing Director of Platform Engineering at
United Airlines. Thank so much.
Tucker: Thank you. It’s great to be with you.
Gardner: And thanks you to our audience for joining this special HP Discover Performance
Podcast coming to you from the HP Discover 2013 Conference in Las Vegas.
I'm Dana Gardner; Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions, your host for this ongoing series of
HP sponsored discussions. Thanks again for joining, and come back next time.
Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes. Sponsor: HP
Transcript of a BrieﬁngsDirect podcast on how HP tools facilitated a giant airline merger that
brought many IT systems and application together. Copyright Interarbor Solutions, LLC,
2005-2013. All rights reserved.
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