How Boeing is using the cloud

Aircraft manufacturer uses Amazon Web Services and Microsoft to deliver apps. But it isn't easy

LAS VEGAS - There’s a lot of talk about the cloud, but how are businesses really using it?

This week at Interop, Boeing’s chief cloud strategist, David Nelson, outlined a couple of ways the aircraft manufacturer is not only using the public cloud, but combining that that with on-premises virtualized workloads to create a hybrid environment. The results are applications that Nelson says run more efficiently, are less expensive and serve the needs of Boeing better than if the company had done it all in-house.

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Nelson first described an application the company has developed that tracks all of the flight paths that planes take around the world. Boeing’s sales staff uses it to help sell aircraft showing how a newer, faster one could improve operations. The app incorporates both historical and real-time data, which means there are some heavy workloads. “There’s lots of detail and analysis,” he says. It takes a “boatload” of processing power to collect the data, analyze it, render it and put it into a presentable fashion.  

The application started years ago by running on five laptop computers that were synced together. They got so hot running the application that measures needed to be taken to keep them cool, Nelson said. Then Nelson helped migrate the application to the cloud, but doing so took approval from internal security, legal and technology teams.

In order to protect proprietary Boeing data the company uses a process called “shred and scatter.” Using software supported by a New Zealand firm, GreenButton, Boeing takes the data it plans to put in the cloud and breaks it up into the equivalent of what Nelson called puzzle pieces. Those pieces are then encrypted and sent to Microsoft Azure’s cloud. There it is stored and processed in the cloud, but for anything actionable to be gleaned from the data, it has to be reassembled behind Boeing’s firewall.

That’s not the only Boeing app hosted in the cloud. Nelson, who previously served as director of service oriented architecture or SOA at Boeing, described a second application that uses Amazon Web Services cloud, along with on-premises Boeing resources to create a hybrid application.

It’s basically a toolbox app that allows mechanics around the country to research, conduct and verify maintenance and repairs. The Digital Toolbox app combines data that Boeing hosts itself about its own planes, but Nelson said the real innovative part is the work the company has done to integrate repair information from other aircraft manufacturers. The application automatically routes the users to data either inside Boeing’s data centers if it’s there, or to AWS’s cloud if it’s information from another airline. “It’s seamless to the end user, but it provides all the functionality they need,” Nelson said.

It’s been a success, Nelson said, because many of the big airline companies work with multiple aircraft manufacturers, such as Boeing and Airbus, but they can go to Boeing to get the repair and Toolbox information from a variety of manufacturers.

These applications took years to develop and many different approvals within the company, Nelson said. “It’s still a challenge,” to get cloud applications perfect, he said after his presentation. To get both the technical deployment of the application perfected as well as the legal, regulatory and security assurances in place is not easy. But, if completed it can create efficiencies and open up new products and services for companies.

Senior Writer Brandon Butler covers cloud computing for Network World and He can be reached at and found on Twitter at @BButlerNWW. Read his Cloud Chronicles here.  

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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