Emirates Group owns and operates Emirates, the Middle East’s largest airline and recent winner of the 2020 Airline of the Year (Aviation Business Awards). In a normal year, it boasts 300 aircraft, carrying 56 million passengers. In a sector known for thin margins, maintaining an edge isn’t an option—it’s a necessity. In 2020, that pressure was even greater after COVID-19 struck. Emirates Group successfully migrated both its ecommerce and corporate communications platforms, including over 30 business-critical applications, from more than 250 servers to Amazon Web Services (AWS).

The move helped to cut costs dramatically when demand for services fell sharply because of the pandemic. The migration covered almost all of the airline’s customer-facing systems, its main booking engine, customer websites, and its mobile app. It was not a straight lift and shift—many applications had to be reconfigured and optimized to work on modern operating systems.

A Massive Migration

Before migrating its core booking engine and other Tier 1 applications to AWS, Emirates relied on third-party colocation centers hosting Emirates-owned hardware. This hardware was approaching end of life and becoming expensive to maintain. A move to the cloud promised many benefits and avoided large capital expenditure. A core team of just six people was managing a huge, monolithic, and dated set of applications. But those applications were critical for the business, so downtime was not an option.

In addition to the migration, Emirates had to fully transform several services within the application stack: from Windows 2008/2012 to 2016, from Linux RHEL 6.4 to 7.7, and from SQL Server 2012 to 2016. Roshan D’Souza, technical team lead at Emirates, says: “We are obsessed with doing the right thing, and we knew there was application technical debt to address. Moving to the cloud made achieving this objective a much easier process.”

There was a hard-and-fast deadline—an expected peak in demand for bookings in July 2020, although COVID-19 flattened that demand. Winning over Emirates’ risk-conscious leadership was tough at first, but made easier with the company’s history of working with AWS on other projects. And support only grew as more and more workloads were moved without disruption, and performance of those applications improved.

Problems to Solve

Like most airlines, Emirates deals with seasonal peaks and troughs. Running its own data centers meant paying for underused capacity to cope with these peaks. And it took about 10 weeks to procure, set up, test, and deploy a new physical server. With AWS, that process takes a couple of hours. Spinning up a new virtual machine now takes an hour, compared to six weeks. The move to AWS also meant Emirates could rapidly scale down its systems when COVID-19 and travel restrictions caused passenger numbers to collapse.

Emirates had suffered from data center outages and struggled to find problems through its opaque systems and interfaces with third-party networks. In addition, time to market for new features was painfully slow, and it was impossible to experiment to embrace a DevOps culture. The Emirates security team had limited control over the colocation infrastructure, and security investigations were manual and labor intensive. For Emirates customers, this all added up to slow online booking processes via the website and mobile devices.

How the Move Was Made

The team migrated workloads from one geographical region at a time to ensure consistent performance. Milestones were planned around low-risk services first, to build business confidence and provide an opportunity to learn and respond. The project was launched in September 2019, with one data center migrated by November 2019 and the other by May 2020. This became more complicated after COVID-19 hit because Emirates shifted to home working and accessing colocation centers became difficult. AWS-native solutions—including AWS Database Migration Service for SQL databases—were used to sync, replicate, and transfer data. Bidirectional replication ensured that Emirates’ platform would continue working perfectly as applications were migrated.

With Amazon FSx for Windows File Server, Emirates was able to easily provision file storage for its CMS (SDL Tridion) to store files for the booking website. The fully managed Amazon FSx provides greater performance and reliability compared to Emirates’ on-premises data center. It also improved security by ensuring data is encrypted at every stage. Aneesh Rasheed, principal engineer at Emirates, says: “The core team’s insight and willingness to learn about these new AWS tools meant that previous unknowns were soon rectified, making implementing solutions that much simpler for the business.”

The Results

For Emirates customers, there were noticeable improvements in service. Emirates’ Internet Booking Engine now responds far more quickly, and an end-to-end transaction can be completed 12 seconds faster than before. Mobile performance has also improved—search results are returned five seconds faster. Emirates expects to reap annual savings of AED 3.8 million (USD $1 million) after it fully retires its hardware. Provisioning is now largely automated by using infrastructure as code and the Amazon ELK stack (Elasticsearch, Logstash, and Kibana) for application logging and visualization.

The move to AWS also provided telemetry that gave insights into systems, both for IT and the rest of the business. And the team built dashboards that provided simple and effective data graphics to staff across the business. Erick Meunier, Emirates head of ecommerce, mobile, and commercial passenger systems, says: “I wasn’t blind before, but there were some dashboards only readily available to folks in IT—I’d have to wait for reports to be sent to me. AWS has increased the transparency of the organization, which is really important right now because the travel business is changing so rapidly due to the pandemic.”

The business can now see application performance in real time—it can assess the impact of campaigns by watching web traffic increase and make better-informed decisions. These dashboards also allowed Emirates staff to react quickly when the virus hit. Meunier adds: “This allowed me and our IT partners to make informed decisions around areas like our current server loads and the ability to right-size our infrastructure, paving the way for additional cost savings.” Mark Sukumaran, solutions delivery manager for the AWS migration at Emirates, agrees. “The transparency of the AWS platform made it easy for the business to see its value, and gain actionable insights. That made our partners like Erick Meunier and the ecommerce team active drivers of the project.”

Zero Downtime

Emirates’ transformation was completed with zero unplanned downtime. There are always problems when you try and virtualize applications for the first time, particularly when dealing with multiple integration points. But the core team’s expertise, coupled with the support of our leadership team, made the whole migration go really smoothly. And more importantly, with zero unplanned downtime which was a massive win for Emirates,” says Sukumaran.

Crucially, the move meant the company could take instant action when COVID-19 wrought havoc on the travel industry. The migration has given staff across the company access to data and simple tools to analyze that data, which is already powering better decision making. But the biggest winners have been Emirates passengers, who can now book tickets via the website or on a mobile device more quickly and more reliably.

AWS has increased the transparency of the organization, which is really important right now because the travel business is changing so rapidly due to the pandemic.

Erick Meunier
Head of eCommerce, Mobile and Commercial Passenger Systems, Emirates