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In the modern era, the airline industry makes so much possible - whether it’s seeing the people we love across the country or the world, exploring the places we don’t know or returning home, travel helps us live our lives through meaningful experiences. For this, Southwest Airlines focuses on making air travel accessible to everyone through friendly, reliable and low-cost services. Having grown to more than 120 airports across 11 countries, Southwest remains a major U.S. airline with customer experience at the heart of its operations.

Technology plays an increasing role in delivering exceptional service to its customers; Southwest runs more than 4,400 flights a day across 140 airports, numbers that surge during peak travel times and continue to increase as the airline expands to new destinations. Because of this, its network infrastructure is critical to keeping planes in the air and moving toward their destinations. Airports also need consistent access to all ticketing and passenger applications, so that staff can get customers on planes.

This growing scale can be a catch-22: On one hand, Southwest can serve more customers in more places. On the other hand, more places introduce more routers and switches to manage and more personnel with different skills and processes. Each airport can have a range of 25 to 100 routers and switches, and more flying hours means smaller maintenance windows. In turn, engineers have to wake up earlier to implement changes, and then spend hours on documentation, making it feasible to only service a subset of these devices in the condensed timeframe. Beyond in-plane technologies, network teams face configuration drift with varying engineers and working siloes across the company. Five engineers would take an entire maintenance window to upgrade 30 or so switches.

At least this is what the world for Southwest was like before the organization turned to Red Hat Ansible Automation Platform. Now, Southwest uses Ansible Automation Platform to keep the networks up and running more consistently, drive more efficiency and deliver greater customer satisfaction. With automation, Southwest can upgrade 30 switches in just 30 minutes.

Automation is golden

With Ansible Automation Platform, Southwest network enginers created a standardized network setup called the "golden configuration” for a more consistent and reliable network across airports. This pre-configured setup provides a baseline for 90% of what's needed at each airport. They run an Ansible Playbook to set up the core functionality of switches and routers, and then engineers configure any airport-specific details. With automation, the total process takes just 20 minutes. Not only are there immense time savings, but automation reduces human error in setup and increases the opportunity to collaborate across airports and onboard new employees to best practices. Automation can be strategically deployed at scale, and potential outages due to misconfigurations are reduced.

While it’s impossible to avoid outages completely, minimizing downtime is essential. If critical systems go down, even a large team of engineers can’t manually check all device layers, the firewall and DNS quickly enough. Ansible Automation Platform can launch 100 different playbooks at once to access all the information needed to identify if and where there is a problem with the network environment.

Monitoring is also a key element to a functioning network, and before adopting Ansible Automation Platform, engineers had to log into multiple applications to piece together a complete picture of operations. Now Southwest has a network engineering suite, an internal web portal that unifies multiple apps and tools into one view. The network engineering suite is integrated with tools like ServiceNow, so IT can quickly see what they need to know across all of their sites, whether network bandwidth, ticket status or app health.

Making IT teams into innovators with automation

Automation is a key element in building tools that help IT teams do everyday tasks more quickly, efficiently and effectively. Ultimately, the integration of Ansible Automation Platform helps Southwest build smarter tools and automate repetitive tasks so they can focus on more complex issues and fuel innovation within the business.

Ansible Automation Platform is now mission-critical for Southwest, removing a host of repetitive, manual and time-consuming tasks from IT teams, like device upgrades, which can now be done on a thousand devices at a time over a single night. With the success of this implementation, the organizational mindset is shifting to automation to solve the next set of problems: The network automation team is expanding, the entire infrastructure team is rolling out automation, and server and storage teams are seeking automation for more engineering tasks.

In the future, Southwest plans to expand into infrastructure as code and use Event-Driven Ansible to reduce manual tasks and deliver even more efficient mission-critical workflows. And with the new gen AI capabilities of Red Hat Ansible Lightspeed, there’s untapped potential for a new set of automators to get started innovating with Ansible Automation Platform, bridging the gap for up-and-coming engineers to understand how an Ansible Playbook is constructed. 

About the author

Red Hat is the world’s leading provider of enterprise open source software solutions, using a community-powered approach to deliver reliable and high-performing Linux, hybrid cloud, container, and Kubernetes technologies.

Red Hat helps customers integrate new and existing IT applications, develop cloud-native applications, standardize on our industry-leading operating system, and automate, secure, and manage complex environments. Award-winning support, training, and consulting services make Red Hat a trusted adviser to the Fortune 500. As a strategic partner to cloud providers, system integrators, application vendors, customers, and open source communities, Red Hat can help organizations prepare for the digital future.

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