Lessons in the Cloud from Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines seems to have been founded with a simple purpose: to democratize the skies. The airline was formed during a time when air travel was considered a luxury reserved for the elite. Southwest believed air travel ought to be available to all and so they embarked on a mission to bring air travel to the masses. And they set out to do this with a smile on their faces — the LUV theme and Southwest heart that we’ve all become familiar with.

And how did Southwest fulfill this mission? By making air travel more affordable. They weigh every decision against a simple question: does what we’re doing make flying more accesible? Does it help us democratize the skies? If the decision does not lead to a more affordable flying experience for customers, then it’s not implemented. Ever wonder why there are no in-flight meals? It turns out that no meal-service makes flying less expensive (imagine that). And why doesn’t Southwest charge for bags like their competitors? Because it adds to the expense of traveling — thus, the “Bags Fly Free” campaign. When everyone else zigged, Southwest seems to have zagged.

Even more important than free bags was the realization that a plane on the ground is not making money. This is why Southwest has a maniacal focus on gate turnaround times. Why does Southwest have an open seating policy? Because random boarding is by far the fastest way to fill a plane. So even though customers don’t universally like the process, Southwest adopts it because it supports their mission to get planes off the ground faster. Southwest also eschewed the popular hub-and-spoke model for flight planning and adopted a point-to-point system — this means that the airline can turn a plane around once on the ground and reloaded within an industry-leading 25 minutes.

But this is not the only way Southwest has sped up the turnaround times.

If you have flown Southwest, you probably noticed that whether you are flying 400 miles or 2000 miles, you are on a Boeing 737. Whether the cabin is sparsely populated or packed to the gills, it’s a 737. No matter the route or the load, Southwest flies a single aircraft.

By reducing the complexity in their operating environment, they can optimize and simplify all the processes around it. All their pilots can fly all their planes. All of their crews can service all of their planes. The catering teams have a standard way of doing their jobs. Cleaning the plane is always the same. Any mechanic can work on any plane. Any spare part can be used on any plane. They can divert planes to other cities and not have to worry about overbooked flights.

The turnaround process is dominated not by the plane, but by all the activities and execution that happen around the plane. Reducing the variables allows for a streamlined process, which ultimately serves Southwest’s corporate mission.

The Lesson for IT
It turns out that IT can learn a thing or two from this practice. If you look at cloud providers, they have championed much simpler underlying architectures. In networking, for instance, they have stripped out all the esoteric features and even some of the mainstream protocols. While this removes functionality in many cases, it allows the underlying infrastructure to be built from a common set of building blocks put together in uniform ways.

In essence, companies have been driving complexity out of their architectures so that they can optimize their operational processes. When you think of cloud, you think about agility and scale. This agility and the ability to rapidly scale-out is only possible because of a maniacal focus on building around a uniform architecture. Anything that makes things slower is simply not in line with the mission.

This is why industry movements like disaggregation matter. It’s not that Amazon and Google need to shave a few pennies off their CapEx bill. Rather, disaggregation is about identifying and isolating the building blocks so that there is a uniform, unchanging core. If the higher layers of the IT stack are deeply embedded in that core, then it introduces sources of divergence which only erode the operational practices on which the cloud relies.

But the efforts to reduce complexity should extend beyond just the cloud properties. Indeed, the whole of Enterprise IT needs to be simplifying their environments by removing the excess. Legacy applications — and the infrastructure required to support their sometimes unique needs — are on the way out. And this means that the next era in IT will be marked less by the things we add and more by the things we retire.

If we want to democratize the cloud in much the same way that Southwest democratized the skies, we need to maintain a maniacal focus on simplicity.

The Challenger is a series of posts authored by a member of the Juniper Networks Executive Team. The goal is to challenge existing norms about technology, business and society.