Delta takes off with modernized blend of mainframes and cloud

When it comes to IT, Delta Air Lines is climbing higher into the clouds even as it keeps its footing on solid ground. The Atlanta-based airlines, which is partnering with Amazon Web Services on the cloud front and Kyndryl for its mainframe systems, is very content with its choice for a hybrid infrastructure, says Matt Cincera, senior vice president of software engineering at Delta.

“We have a good balance. They play together well,” says Cincera. “We have hundreds of applications that we’re in the process of moving to the cloud but a lot of our main capabilities are underpinned by workloads on the mainframe and it’s definitely with us for the foreseeable future.”

Some of those workloads include travel reservation systems and crew scheduling systems — mission-critical, 24-by-7 applications that are never turned off.

Delta’s foray into the cloud began in earnest about two years ago as the pandemic brought travel to a virtual halt, Cincera says. In partnership with AWS, the airlines started migrating many front-end applications and distributed applications that “marry” themselves well to the cloud while retaining traditional back-end workloads on the mainframe.

One cloud application that Delta highlights is the robust WiFi portal it launched this year to enable passengers to run connected applications on their own devices throughout a flight without having to pay the added cost for expensive and limited wireless sessions delivered via satellite.

The WiFi portal, which Delta is offering in collaboration with T-Mobile, also gives travelers to the ability to run any content on their devices rather than being limited to preselected content on backseat screens. The portal is available on roughly 550 Delta airplanes and was made possible because of Delta’s commitment to the cloud, Cincera says, noting Delta has 902 mainline aircraft and 352 regional aircraft in its global fleet.

“The speed of the cloud allowed us to move from concept to installation and provisioning in six months,” he says, adding that Delta’s cloud shift has also helped reduce equipment purchases and maintenance costs while providing efficiency and elasticity for the applications the airlines runs in the cloud.

Best of both worlds

As part of its cloud strategy, Delta has been moving many analytical workloads and data to the cloud. It has also been exploiting services aimed at enhancing customer service and experience.

For example, Delta IT, which Cincera says comprises roughly 1,400 team members, including subcontractors, has implemented Amazon Connect, an omnichannel customer service center, to enable self-service capabilities such as chat and virtual assist. Such services handle basic customer questions, such as baggage allowance for an upcoming trip, “and maps them to automated workflows to help customers more quickly,” he says.

Delta has plans to deploy AI to automate even more human interactions with the site. “One of the most challenging areas is mapping customer intent and then automating the processes behind it, especially with really tricky transactions,” Cincera says. “Working on automating that is a big focus area for us.”

Despite its enthusiasm for the cloud, Delta intends to continue to rely on mainframes for select workloads and recently signed another 5-year partnership with Kyndryl, formerly IBM Global Services, to manage its mainframe applications, such as its reservation and crew scheduling workloads, as well as its CRM system and FAA maintenance documentation.

Kyndryl will also integrate automation capabilities to enable more agility in moving and managing data across various environments, says Brian O’Rourke, a former 20-year Delta employee who jumped over to IBM Canada and is now lead advisor at Kyndryl on the Delta account. O’Rourke says Kyndryl will help Delta re-architect its infrastructure to better harness data for innovative services, and he expects the two infrastructure platforms — cloud and the mainframe — to co-exist for a long time.

“It is a journey — doing application modernization and migrating to the cloud,” O” Rourke says. “But I can tell you, given the demands of the airlines, they will continue for be on the mainframe for the foreseeable future.”

The hybrid infrastructure is expected to remain in place in complex industries such as airlines and banking in which high availability and maximum reliability are absolute requirements, some analysts claim. Others point out that hybrid approaches enable enterprises to avoid costly vendor lock-in while enjoying multiple layers of fault tolerance.

The mainframe marches on

While some CIOs are sharpening their mainframe exit strategies by opting for the steep journey to the cloud, and others see the mainframe as dying, the mainframe remains ideal for certain workloads, putting many CIOs in a bind, says Peter Rutten, director of high-performance computing research at IDC.

“This paradox exists because the CIOs typically are of a generation that did not get mainframe courses in their computer science program yet now they find themselves presiding over a system that they don’t understand, that represents a large portion of their budget, and that is managed by a team older and more knowledgeable than they,” Rutten says. “So their knee-jerk reaction is: Put it in the cloud. To which the mainframe team often responds: That will be expensive, disruptive, and, frankly, unnecessary.”

Rutten says the current roster of mainframes are “hypermodern systems engineered like no other compute platform” and built for zero disruptions, performance degradation, security lapses, or downtime.

Additionally, he says that IBM’s purchase of Red Hat and subsequent integrations means that IBM Z leverages OpenShift and Ansible for hybrid cloud as well as prepackaged cloud workloads. IBM releases a new generation every 2 1/2 years and invests close to US$1 billion in innovation in each new release. It may surprise some that the platform has seen shipment increases since 2013, Rutten adds.

As long as IBM continues to enhance the mainframe and make it interoperable with the cloud, there’s no reason why it’ll go away, Rutten says, adding that many IT leaders, Cincera among them, are more pragmatic.

“They know that they need the mainframe, modernize on the platform, integrate it with the rest of their data center, run it as a hybrid cloud, and take advantage of the new consumption-based pricing models for the platform,” he says.

Delta is of the same mindset — for now.

“Having that strong mainframe backbone and delivering services though high performing cloud capabilities plays well together,” Cincera says of Delta’s ongoing embrace of a hybrid infrastructure for the future. “We’re really comfortable where we’re at today.”

Cloud Computing, Digital Transformation, Mainframes, Travel and Hospitality Industry