The overall experience with AWS has been great. You basically pay for what you use. We have a similar motto at WOW air.
Kristjan Thorvaldsson Director of IT

Founded in 2011 by entrepreneur Skúli Mogensen, WOW air operated its first flight in May 2012 and has grown rapidly since then. By October 2012 it took over the operations of Iceland Express and a year later was awarded the Air Operator‘s Certificate (AOC) by the Icelandic Transport Authority. WOW air aims to be the first truly low-cost carrier to provide services between Europe and North America, by offering a “pay for what you need/want” model, where passengers can choose to add services like baggage, seat selections, hotel bookings, and car rental depending on their requirements. By December 2014 WOW air had served its one-millionth passenger and predicts that it will fly more than 800,000 people to 21 destinations in 2015.

Like all low-cost flight operators, WOW air relies on the web to generate and process sales. Until moving to AWS, the airline hosted its Internet-facing IT infrastructure on hardware split across its headquarters in Reykjavik and a collocated data center. Using this setup, where server computers running Windows Server or Linux were virtualized using a VMware hypervisor, WOW air’s IT division was fighting a losing battle to match the success of its sales. Director of IT Kristjan Thorvaldsson explains, “In early summer 2014 a sales campaign caused a spike in traffic that broke our sales record but tested the infrastructure to breaking point. A second campaign later that year had the same effect, even though by that point the infrastructure had three times as much capacity and had a load balancer installed in preparation for the spike.” For a third campaign, where the company began sales of U.S. flights, Thorvaldsson and his team decided to move their Internet booking engine (IBE) to AWS in order to expand it twelvefold to cope with predicted loads of 15–30 times the usual level.

WOW air chose AWS because it needed a platform to match rapid business growth and provide scalability in times of increased traffic. It also looked at Microsoft Azure, but decided AWS offered a broader range of services including DNS and database services, in addition to hosting server environments. Thorvaldsson says, “I was skeptical about the cloud. First my colleagues convinced me that AWS could solve some of our problems; then I had to convince the upper-level management that this was the way to go. In the end our proof of concept turned out to be the success we saw with the launch of U.S. flight sales.” WOW air initially spent three days partially migrating the first version of the IBE over to Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2). After running tests for a week, the team moved the entire IBE to AWS ready for the sales campaign. The IBE runs on various Amazon EC2 instances on Windows Server and CentOS. WOW air also uses Elastic Load Balancing to spread traffic across these instances. It uses Amazon Relational Database Service (Amazon RDS) to host SQL, MySQL, and Postgre databases; Amazon Route 53 to direct users coming from its 135 domains to the appropriate web services; and AWS Identity and Access Management (IAM) to control user access. Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) is used across its environment for data storage.

Since moving its booking engine, development platforms, and web servers to AWS, Thorvaldsson has noticed a raft of benefits. “We measure success by the improved uptime and performance of our systems–especially our Internet booking engine,” he says. “This improvement is immediately obvious to our business stakeholders. With our old setup we often had complaints about the systems being down during big campaigns. Now we hardly have any.” In fact, moving to AWS was crucial to the success of the launch of WOW air’s launch of U.S. flights. “We would not have been able to provide capacity for the campaign by adding more servers in the collocation environment, so the campaign would have been a failure,” says Thorvaldsson.

In making the switch, WOW air has also saved money on hardware and software licensing. Thorvaldsson says, “Since going live in AWS, we’ve increased our IT infrastructure by around 40 percent. The only way we could have achieved that in the old environment would have been investing in hardware, which takes several years to pay off. As our VMware hosts were getting old, we also saw the long-term benefits in migrating to the cloud rather than reinvesting in hardware and renewing software licenses.” By avoiding this cost Thorvaldsson estimates that WOW air has saved between $30,000 and $45,000.

As well as saving money and having an environment better suited to a growing business, WOW air employees are also saving time. “Deploying an Internet-facing server would require us to set it up from scratch,” says Thorvaldsson. “Plus, getting IP addresses and firewall openings from our colocation partner could take days. Today both of those things take under 10 minutes. We can deploy extra servers on the fly very quickly, and managing our AWS environment is a one- or two-person job–that’s incredible.” Application latency has also been cut–although this is in milliseconds rather than minutes. Thorvaldsson says, “Our IBE connects to web services in Orlando, Florida. We’ve seen a decrease in the response time accessing those services from around 170 ms to 55 ms. Also, since going to AWS with our infrastructure hosted in Ireland, the majority of our customers have seen much faster response times.”

Next year WOW air plans to increase the size of its fleet and the number of destinations it serves, meaning more passengers, revenue, and staff. “This will call for more dedicated systems, bigger systems,” says Thorvaldsson. “We see the cloud as the place to host that.”

WOW air is in the process of moving some of its internal systems to a hybrid cloud. “We’re a growing business, things move fast, and time is money, so we want to be able to do things right away.” With systems sitting in a collocation data center, it can take a day to get a response to a request, but with AWS, WOW air is able to keep total control over all systems and take action immediately. Thorvaldsson sums up working with AWS: “The overall experience with AWS has been great. The cost structure–it makes sense: You basically pay for what you use. We have a similar motto at WOW air.”

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