Alaska Air Takes Off to SCM with AccuRev
Published: February 21, 2007
by Alex Woodie
For many years, Alaska Air used manual processes to prepare its source code for deployment. The processes worked, but were time consuming and didn't jibe with plans to speed up its application development processes and make it more nimble. After looking at more than a dozen software configuration management (SCM) tools, the airline settled on AccuRev's lifecycle management products to provide more order to its Windows development activities.
Alaska Air is one of the nation's biggest airlines, and a dominant carrier on the West Coast. The company has long been a Windows shop, thanks in large part to where it's located--near Seattle-Tacoma (Sea-Tac) Airport in Washington State, about a half-hour drive (in good traffic) to Microsoft headquarters in Redmond. The company has a close relationship with Microsoft, and often tests new Microsoft products before they're released to the market.
About two years ago, the $3 billion airline overhauled its IT department to become more lean. It contracted a new building where 135 developers across 12 divisions would work in close proximity, one of the hallmarks of the "extreme programming" development ethos that Alaska Air has adopted.
At the same time, the airlines decided it needed a tighter handle on the source code underlying its applications, including its flight operations applications, its e-commerce Web site, the frequent flyer's club, and many others.
"The development process at Alaska Air, parts of it were very undisciplined," says Chris Barnes, a senior project manager with Alaska Air, and a member of its architecture team, which was responsible for selecting and implementing the change management system. "We would just check the code in to make sure it wasn't on [developer's] hard drives, but we never did any builds on it. We decided a few years ago that we needed control of this."
Alaska Air had used SourceSafe, a free version control program from Microsoft. But SourceSafe didn't offer some of the more advanced features it was looking for. So the airline decided to buy a third-party software configuration management (SCM) tool. It evaluated 18 SCM tools. Six of these were brought in for more extensive demos, and two products were invited in for pilot programs, including products from AccuRev and Perforce.
Barnes explained what he was looking for in an SCM tool. It had to have good performance and be able to handle large source code libraries (SourceSafe had a 2 GB limit). He wanted his development teams to be able to share code easily, and to drive up reuse of .NET code. Barnes also wanted his teams to be able to work on groups of source code files, and not have to check them out one by one. Most importantly, the tool had to be flexible and adapt to the way each of the 12 development teams worked.
(While neither IBM's Rational ClearCase nor Microsoft's Team Development features in Visual Studio 2005 made the final two, Barnes offered his opinions on the products. "We felt ClearCase was a sledgehammer for what we needed to do. It was too regimented" and offered a confusing array of features. The new Team Development feature in VS05 is a big improvement over SourceSafe, but it wasn't ready for primetime when Alaska Air needed a solution, according to Barnes. "Version 1.0 wasn't very stable and it was missing a few key requirements we had, so they didn't make the final cut," he said.)
When push came to shove, AccuRev won out over Perforce, and the implementation of the AccuRev SCM tool began last July. Initially, Alaska Air ran into some problems with how AccuRev integrated with Visual Studio, but the vendor and the airline eventually worked it out. Two development teams were trained every month, and for a total of about 30 training classes in the second half of 2006, Barnes said. Ten development teams--everybody except for payroll and finance--has made the move to AccuRev.
Barnes has been pleased with the AccuRev product, and says the greater automation has already provided a return on the investment (more than $100,000). Alaska Air isn't using all of AccuRev's features, according to Barnes. Instead, the airline is focusing on getting builds automated and linking deployment processes so deployments can happen more automatically instead of having developers copy file shares, he said.
The biggest AccuRev-related gain pertained to Alaska Air's e-commerce Web site at www.alaskaair.com. "You have to be very careful with an application that's being used by hundreds of thousands or millions of people without training. You can't make mistakes with that, so that group had a very disciplined development process," he said.
Previously, the airlines employed two people in the quality assurance (QA) department who manually merged code changes and tested and fixed build. Now, all of that work prepping the builds has been automated with AccuRev, and Alaska Air has even boughtMercury Interactive's automated testing software, called LoadRunner, to further streamline the testing process. The QA employees have been reassigned to other duties, providing savings in excess of $100,000.
Barnes has found other reasons to like AccuRev. "The one thing that sets AccuRev apart is it graphically displays our development process and code organizations," he said. "It has a graphic screen called the StreamBrowser that's very easy for developers to open up--I can't see how that hasn't made it easier . . . the graphical view, that put it over the top."
The AccuRev implementation is ongoing at Alaska Air. Barnes wants to further automate the build control process by hooking an open-source product called Cruise Control into AccuRev product. And next month, the final two development teams who work on the airline's Unix-based PeopleSoft Enterprise ERP system will be brought online with AccuRev, completing the roll-out.
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