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Hotel hits the gas pedal with souped up DevOps model

Seeking faster application delivery led to Starwood Hotels adopting a "DevOps plus" approach, adding in security and middleware teams.

After spending $1 billion over a decade to modernize its IT infrastructure, Starwood Hotels still yearned to do more to make loyal customers happy.

Thus began a year-long IT transformation, by the parent company behind names such as Sheraton and Weston, to an enhanced DevOps model that reduced release cycles, improved estimates, and gave teams complete ownership over new features.

"The speed of innovation is blindingly fast now," said Christos Kotsakis, CTO at Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. He outlined the transformation at IBM InterConnect in Las Vegas last month.

Part of that $1 billion push was a $150 million project to rewrite the company's central reservation system from scratch using a modern service oriented architecture-based system, but Starwood still needed to figure out how to deliver a better experience for its users, many of whom were repeat customers. The company's loyalty program, Starwood Preferred Guest, counts 20 million active members, which have soared 60% since 2009 and bloomed from 20% to 30% of its hotel guests on any given night to more than 50%.

Starwood's development and delivery process made sense when teams were delivering "mammoth projects" that were not going to production regularly but not when trying to go live with new feature functions every two weeks, noted Kotsakis. Teams were frustrated with the process and couldn't continue to wait months to get servers up and an initiative going, he said. Agile methods were supposed to solve all of these problems, but it didn't work out that way.

Starwood instead changed its entire culture that involved committing to a new process, experimenting and "failing fast" in the new DevOps model. Friction points were removed between the idea inception from the business side and product development and between product development and running it in production.

Measure only the things you are willing to put a stake on and are willing to improve; If you measure too much, it all becomes meaningless.
Christos KotsakisCTO, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc.

Since then, DevOps principles combined with new tools have helped Starwood teams develop and test faster while also cutting costs.

"That was an initiative that couldn't go away," Kotsakis said. "As much as the others could be adapted, [cutting costs] was a fixture."

The transition to a "DevOps plus" model started by looking at the product focus, keeping in mind that the central reservation system relies on about 25 applications even though "to the customer it is really one system," said Tom Seremet, director of availability technologies at Starwood.

From there, he built a roadmap that shifted focus from individual functions to how a "bucket of applications" work. He also started drawing lines between various projects that would have the greatest effect on customers, which meant reaching out beyond development and operations to include the security and middleware teams in the DevOps model.

"You need them all part of this to really streamline the pipeline," Seremet said.

This also meant shifting away from a project team that completes a project and sends it off to operations. A new role, the business relationship manager, now helps teams make smart choices that align with business needs while interacting with product owners, all under a "if you build it, you own it" mindset, Seremet explained.

"If something goes wrong, you have skin in the game," and teams get credit and accolades for the good things that happen, he said.

The testing struggle

One of the challenges that pushed Starwood into its IT transformation to an all-inclusive DevOps model is something that Robert Bodily, vice president of IT, database and development at America First Credit Union in Ogden, Utah is also confronting.

"We struggle with testing also," he said. "That is something we are really focusing on and trying to find solutions to it."

He had been working in a rapid application development environment but was forced back to the waterfall method due to an ongoing project. He is working to get his teams back to agile and a more rapid development process.

Starwood's journey offered some lessons for Bodily, specifically "the concept of keeping the project teams small and the assignments small makes it easier to estimate and easier to control," he said.

Faster cycles help improve estimation, according to Kotsakis, who found the best solution was to size projects by T-shirt sizes -- a small, medium or large widget, he explained -- rather than spending a lot of time using spreadsheets and formulae to come up with an estimate.

The statistics Kotsakis gathered and cited include 10% to 40% more user stories and a reduction of deployment times by 66%. There have also been 20% fewer errors in production "and ultimately that results in fewer incidents for our guests," he said.

Measuring what matters is important, even if the instinct is to measure everything.

"Measure only the things you are willing to put a stake on and are willing to improve," Kotsakis said. "If you measure too much, it all becomes meaningless."

Starwood is still working on a process to identify and focus on the right initiatives.

"We still have some challenges getting the business ideas into the development stream," Kotsakis said. Once the idea gets into development stream and gets built "that process is extremely fast. ...We've seen a tremendous improvement in the teams and there are much fewer friction points."

Above all, both hotel operations and the booking process run smoother.

"It's been a pretty big journey for us," Kotsakis said.

Robert Gates covers data centers, data center strategies, server technologies, converged and hyper-converged infrastructure and open source operating systems for SearchDataCenter. Follow him on Twitter @RBGatesTT or email him at [email protected].

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