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Google Cloud collaborates with Comair to provide seamless travel experiences in Sub-Saharan Africa

Google Cloud collaborates with Comair to provide seamless travel experiences in Sub-Saharan Africa

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Comair Limited is a regional airline based in South Africa that operates scheduled services on domestic routes as a British Airways franchisee. The aviation group also operates as a low-cost carrier under its own kulula.com brand. The company’s main base is O.R Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg and has focus cities at Cape Town International Airport and King Shaka International Airport in Durban. Its headquarters are near O.R Tambo in the Bonaero Park area of Kempton Park in Ekurhuleni, Gauteng province, South Africa. Recently, the company collaborated with Google to modernise its traditional IT infrastructure and legacy applications by moving to Google Cloud and boosting its Digital Transformation journey. Avsharn Bachoo, Chief Information Officer of Comair, outlines how the company is accelerating its Digital Transformation and being supported by Google Cloud to modernise its legacy applications, such as its kulula.com booking application using prominent tools like Firebase and Flutter to upgrade functionalities and provide the scalability the airline requires.

Avsharn Bachoo, Chief Information Officer, Comair.

The global travel industry has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, but as countries open up, the sector and its customers are thrilled to be going places once again. With aerospace company Boeing forecasting that Africa’s airlines will require 1,030 new airplanes by 2040, valued at US$160 billion, opportunities abound in this region. One of the largest airline operators in Southern Africa, Comair is well placed to help the area’s travel sector reach its sky-high goals.

“Comair offers airline services across Southern African, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the ocean islands through two distinct but complementary brands,” explained Avsharn Bachoo, Chief Information Officer at Comair. “Kulula.com is our low-cost airline brand, and one of the market leaders in affordable air travel. British Airways is our premium and corporate airline brand that we operate as part of a license agreement. So, we offer something for everyone in the region.”

With various COVID-19-related lockdowns grounding its aircraft on the runway, Comair concentrated on updating its systems so that it would be ready to impress its increasingly digitally savvy customers as they returned to the skies. “We were challenged to completely rethink our operations for the digital age, and we needed to replace our outdated legacy on-premises architecture, which was struggling to cope with our workload,” said Bachoo.

Founded in 1943, Comair Limited is an airline based in South Africa that operates scheduled services on domestic routes as a British Airways franchisee. The aviation group also operates as a low-cost carrier under its own kulula.com brand. Headquartered at Bonaero Park area of Kempton Park in Ekurhuleni, Gauteng province, the company has focus cities at Cape Town International Airport and King Shaka International Airport in Durban.

Recently, the company collaborated with Google to modernise its traditional IT infrastructure and legacy applications by moving to Google Cloud and boosting its Digital Transformation journey.

As part of its modernisation initiatives of traditional IT infrastructure and legacy applications the aviation group has moved to Google Cloud and is boosting Digital Transformation plans.

According to Comair, Google Cloud is supporting it in modernising its legacy applications, such as its kulula.com booking application using prominent tools like Firebase and Flutter to upgrade its functionalities and provide the scalability the airline requires.

The collaboration with Google Cloud will accelerate the aviation group’s Digital Transformation plans in line with its mission to deliver seamless travel experiences for customers and help the travel industry regain momentum in Sub-Saharan Africa.

As the operator of the British Airways brand and the Kulula budget carrier in Sub-Saharan Africa, Comair is on a mission to deliver seamless travel experiences for customers in Africa.

Upgrading to a cloud solution

To achieve this, Comair had to migrate most of its systems from its on-premises solution to the cloud, which would provide a more flexible dynamic platform for its ambitious plans. As Comair’s technology stack supports everything from financial data, secure customer records, and airplane navigation information, it was crucial that it chose a cloud provider that it could trust to secure all of its data and processes.

“We work on a strong model of trust,” reiterated Bachoo. “If we don’t have clear control of our systems it can be serious enough to cause a fatality. Every piece of hardware and software that we use has to be 100% tested.”

Prior to its move to the cloud, Comair relied on six on-premises data centres, which were labour intensive and nearing the end of their usability. It compiled a proof of concept (PoC) with which to judge potential cloud providers. “We assessed each potential cloud provider for security, compute, processing power and storage. Google Cloud proved to run on average 70% faster than our on-premises systems, using fewer cores and less RAM. Plus, it supported a multitude of open-source applications, and crucially, we saw it could be trusted,” revealed Bachoo.

The company has completed its infrastructure optimisation plans as it migrated six labor-intensive, on-premises data centres to Google Cloud. The migration of traditional IT infrastructure has enabled the airline to run key workloads that include important financial data, secure customer records, airplane navigation information, and more-all on the cleanest cloud in the industry.

Comair has also been able to benefit from the security, reliability, and flexibility provided by Google Cloud, which has helped increase the airline’s efficiency during high-traffic seasons and peak travel times, as it needed to scale to meet consumer travel demand. Comair is also now better positioned to build a data foundation using AI and Machine Learning using Google Cloud tools. In particular, Comair will be able to analyse customer data in a deeper manner, creating personalised products and services, opening up more opportunities and improving the customer experience.

Moreover, Google Cloud is supporting Comair in modernising its legacy applications, such as its kulula.com booking application, using prominent tools like Firebase and Flutter to upgrade its functionalities and provide the scalability the airline requires. Comair customers now turn to the Kulula application as the main channel to interact with the airline, following upgrades that have enabled more seamless booking and flight payments.

Bachoo said: “We are delighted to have moved to Google Cloud at a time when cloud has become the foundation that enables businesses to transform, differentiate and gain competitive advantage. The sooner you digitally transform, the quicker you’re able to respond to uncertain times. As a result, the digital maturity measures we’ve put in place have helped drive a post-lockdown recovery.”

Taking off on Google Cloud

Comair began migrating its systems to Google Cloud in March 2020 and by August that year it had moved its full production stack over to Google Cloud; it would have been even quicker if the company did not have to navigate various lockdowns along the way.

Comair enlisted the help of Google Cloud partner Teraflow.ai to help with its move to Google Cloud. Bachoo said: “Our strong partnership with Teraflow.ai, who empower enterprises through AI-driven solutions, has allowed us to drive key strategic IT and Digital Transformation efforts. From migration and management of our Cloud Ops on Google’s Cloud platform, to building and managing our DataOps, the results have been favourable. We have also worked with them to modernise our capabilities in Machine Learning, reviving core applications into a micro-serviceable, containerised architecture stretching from back end to the passenger front end (app, web, etc.).”

Comair now runs 70% of its business on Google Cloud, and it uses some other cloud providers for applications that run on parent clouds. It also has a few legacy and client applications that remain on-premises because they have a single code base in a single database and will take a little longer to redevelop for the cloud.

“The plan was always to stick with a hybrid cloud approach, but we expect to eventually be a fully cloud-centric company and have 80% of our work on Google Cloud. We’ve already migrated all of our tier-one systems over. Our booking platform, our ecommerce platform, all our travel businesses, our loyalty program, and our partner systems are now on Google Cloud,” he said.

From its main hub in O.R. Tambo International Airport, the airline operates flights within South Africa and across Southern Africa to destinations such as Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe and Port Louis, Mauritius.

The partnership with Google Cloud equips Comair with in-depth customer data analysis tools to better understand its customers and to tailor its products and services.

Additionally, Kulula.com, a low-cost carrier operated by Comair, has also benefited from the modernisation offered by the collaboration. With upgrades to booking and payment processes, Comair’s customers can now connect with the airline using Kulula.com’s booking application channel.

Powering up with compute engine

Around 90% of Comair’s Google Cloud operations, including all its virtual machines (VM) and storage offerings, are now powered by Compute Engine. “We use VMs to host our applications, and now we are moving our service databases from native SQL to the fully managed Cloud SQL. This means that more of our services are automated, freeing up our IT team for other work,” said Bachoo.

To build and run its mobile applications and analyse the data it collects from them, Comair is using Firebase on the Google Cloud, which syncs to Flutter, the UI toolkit for developing apps for mobile, web, and desktop from a single codebase. And, as Comair has to meet stringent governance requirements, it uses the fully managed data backup as a service solution HYCU in partnership with Google Cloud.

“The next step is to migrate our tier-two operations, our finance, and HR applications over to Google Cloud. For this, we will use the business insights and monitoring tools in the operations suite,” added Bachoo. “And we’re looking at using Cloud Run to help us to scale more flexibly and to optimise our development systems with DevOps.

Google Cloud accelerates organisations’ ability to digitally transform their business with the best infrastructure, platform, industry solutions and expertise. The company delivers enterprise-grade solutions that leverage Google’s cutting-edge technology – all on the cleanest cloud in the industry. Customers in more than 200 countries and territories turn to Google Cloud as their trusted partner to enable growth and solve their most critical business problems.

Niral Patel, Director, Google Cloud Africa, said: “With the customer positioned at the heart of everything the team does at Comair, we are proud to deliver the cloud infrastructure capabilities and tools that will further engrain the airline’s brand promise to be the easiest to book and pay. Comair’s Digital Transformation journey started before the pandemic, and was indeed accelerated by it, but the airline had taken a head start to digitisation before the global lockdown was even in sight by migrating to the cloud. Also, by accelerating cloud adoption, Comair is able to reduce processing power for its systems and become more sustainable.”

Flying into the digital world

All these tools are helping the 78-year-old airline transform on both the strategic and operations fronts into a futuristic digital organisation, ready to make the most of social and mobile communications and data analytics. “Rather than simply lifting and shifting into the cloud, Google Cloud has helped us rethink our architecture and our entire communications ecosystem so that everything works in harmony. It’s all in the details. For example, we can now trigger push notifications using the Google Cloud middleware and streaming service Pub/Sub,” he said.

Even with these additional benefits, the airline’s monthly operating costs are now about a fifth of what they were for its previous on-premises IT architecture, and it is now far quicker and easier for it to scale its various operations too. “Google Cloud enables us to optimise our costs and has given us a technology stack that scales up and down in line with demand. Previously, if we had an offer on, often our infrastructure couldn’t keep up with the volume of sales. Now we seamlessly scale up for busy periods,” explained Bachoo.

Comair is using less processing power too. Its billing system, for example, was using 32 core and 256 gigabytes of RAM. Now that it is running in Google Cloud, it uses 6 core and 32 gigabytes of RAM.

Bachoo added: “We’ve reduced our core usage by more than half and our RAM use by about 50%, which again helps us reduce costs and makes us more sustainable.”

With its infrastructure optimised for the opportunities that the twenty-first century affords, Comair is now all set to make the most of its data. “We’re starting to build a data foundation built on AI and Machine Learning that will open up more opportunities for us and improve our customers’ experience. It will mean that we can analyse consumer data on an on-going basis to create more personalised products and services and new opportunities for cross-selling. Google Cloud has created a lot of exciting openings for us,” he said.

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