As part of its digital transformation efforts, United moved from monolithic applications to microservices. Legacy tools couldn’t cope with this increase in scalability.
United Airlines operates the most comprehensive global route network among North American carriers. United is bringing back its customers’ favorite destinations and adding new ones on its way to becoming the world’s best airline. In 2022, United kicked off the launch of its largest transatlantic expansion in its history, and it is making its fleet bigger and better than ever by adding up to 200 widebody planes – the largest order by a U.S. carrier in commercial airline history. Its 80,000-plus employees are on a mission to do good in the air and on the ground, working to make the world a happier, greener, more inclusive, and more fascinating place.
As part of the United Next strategy, United aims to move 80% of its workload to the cloud on Amazon Web Services (AWS). When looking at its internal development process, the company quickly saw the need for more innovation that would enhance its current tools, skills, people, and culture.
“Our legacy tools required a lot of manual configuration, and we had long wait times because they took too much time to commit the code, create an image, and deploy it to an environment,” said Raji Koppala, Senior Manager of DevOps at United Airlines. “We had some automation, but it couldn’t keep up with process, security, and compliance changes. Plus, the developers who created and deployed the builds weren’t familiar with the organizational security and compliance standards or the resulting cost to the company of manual change management and slow deployments, so we started to seek out new solutions that could streamline the deployments.”
As part of its digital transformation efforts and migration to the cloud, United moved from monolithic applications to microservices, turning a single monolith deployment process into hundreds of independently deployable microservices. This required a massive increase in scalability, and legacy tools couldn’t cope. To adapt, United’s DevOps team started listing deployment requirements, detailing gaps, and creating an inventory of existing tools used across its software delivery process.
“We wanted to concentrate more on innovation and moving things to the cloud,” said Ratna Devarapalli, Director of IT - Architecture, Platform Engineering & DevOps at United Airlines. “We also wanted to ‘shift left’ and put governance in the hands of developers during the build process.”
With United working to shift security and testing earlier in the development process, it also needed guardrails to make sure that processes were followed, and governance controls were in place. After evaluating multiple continuous integration and continuous delivery (CI/CD) tools, United chose Harness.
“None of the other tools we evaluated could give us the ‘shift left’ approach that we needed,” said Devarapalli. “By choosing Harness for CI and CD, we were able to give the governance policies to the developers and create the guardrails we needed. Harness gives us a platform rather than just a DevOps tool.”
United implemented Harness CI/CD to enable developers to execute more self-service deployments. Simply by creating a help ticket, Harness kicks off automation to manage the delivery process with minimal manual intervention required. This accelerates deployments, as well as enables United to scale its delivery process by running deployment pipelines in parallel.
“We were pushing our teams to migrate to the cloud, but that has a chain of dependencies, and developers had to move much faster,” Koppala said. “Harness gave us a lot of best practices right out of the box with reusable templates so developers don’t need to perform any guesswork to determine how the best pipeline should be built.” This simplified developer experience and faster time-to-value with Harness help maximize developer productivity and efficiency at United.
United developers now use Harness CI to simply select a template and start building a new pipeline or to generate pipelines dynamically for each new service. Harness automates reporting to remove manual effort from the developers’ workloads and free up time to focus on more value-add tasks, such as working on new feature developments related to the United Next initiative.
“We started using Harness CI and CD to automatically generate pipelines, use pre-built pipelines, and optimize our deployment process,” Koppala added.
With Harness, United has automated its delivery and deployment processes to enable developers with a self-service approach for deployment, increase compliance with governance policies and processes, and dramatically accelerate its software deployment cycles. Harness is now a critical component in helping DevOps keep the company moving toward its United Next goals.
“The most exciting feature of Harness is on-demand automation,” said Koppala. “Our delivery processes are now more dynamic, more developer friendly, and Harness has eliminated most of the manual coordination we used to do. It’s really enabled us to scale all parts of our delivery process.”
Deployment speed has been enhanced as well. Prior to Harness, a CI pipeline build for an airport operation application took nearly 22 minutes. Now, it’s done in under five minutes for the exact same code. Moreover, teams can build microservices in parallel without unnecessary testing of the services not affected by the new code. Harness also enables developers to orchestrate deployments and sequentially deliver builds as they like.
“We have seen 75% efficiency gains with Harness,” said Devarapalli. “Running pipelines in parallel gives us scalability, too. We can generate ten pipelines in 50 seconds. That used to take days or even weeks if we had a junior DevOps engineer working on it. Harness has been instrumental in helping us work toward our goal of migrating 80% of our workloads to the cloud, increasing operation efficiency that matches United Next objectives, and reducing on-premises costs. We’re also giving time back to developers because they no longer have to babysit deployments. They can just go to the Harness dashboard to view the status of every deployment.”
United also uses Harness to make sure that deployments are compliant with security and governance policies. It lets developers work faster and deliver more functionality without the risk or friction of manual compliance processes.
“There’s usually a lot of conflict between automation and compliance, especially as policies are updated,” added Koppala. “Harness gives us templated governance to enforce organizational standards without developers even realizing a policy has changed. The impact on developers is almost zero.”
The combination of speed, compliance, and scale has given United’s DevOps team the time to focus on optimizing processes and working toward their digital transformation efforts. “With Harness, it’s the democratization, the governance, the speed – it’s all been a huge gain for United,” concluded Devarapalli. “We’re way more efficient than we were a couple years back. The Harness platform is allowing us to do our part as the DevOps team, so United can reach our United Next goals.”
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