Why Sabre is betting against multi-cloud

In January, Sabre, the travel technology company that probably managed at least some aspects of your last flight and hotel bookings, announced a 10-year partnership with Google Cloud that would see it spend about $2 billion on Google’s cloud platform over that time. Sabre, like so many companies of its size, has long operated its own data centers, so any shift to the cloud would be a major undertaking. But while the story for a lot of big enterprises is all about being multi-cloud, Sabre is squarely betting on a single partner.

Joe DiFonzo, Sabre’s CIO, told me that this is the result of quite a bit of learning. When he joined Sabre in 2017, the company’s leadership had already decided on moving more workloads to the cloud. For Sabre, with its eight mainframes and more than 35,000 servers, that was never going to be a trivial undertaking.

“There was this whole element of how we operate our software, how we deploy our products, how we deliver service to customers, that was very much still sort of stuck in the traditional models, [including how you] run your own data center and the massive supply chain management issues around that, how we deploy software and package it, this notion of physical machine environments, that sort of thing,” he explained.

With buy-in from the leadership, he set to move the company to not only the cloud but also a modern development model. And like so many other companies, Sabre started making deals with a number of cloud providers, mostly because the team wasn’t sure yet who to bet on — or whether to opt for a multi-cloud approach.

“We were able to start making that journey, but we had not done a lot in the cloud before. So, originally, we went on path where we made deals with all the major cloud providers. We were thinking: well, let’s go down the multi-cloud path until we see if there’s something better, because, quite frankly, we didn’t know what we didn’t know and we didn’t want to make the mistake of committing to anybody too early.”

And while the leadership was behind the move, DiFonzo felt like he had to get an early win, in part because the company’s customers also had to be on board. For that, the team picked one of Sabre’s most important and most CPU-intensive services: its shopping application, which previously ran in its own Tulsa, Oklahoma data center. That’s where a lot of revenue for Sabre’s customers is generated, so by being able to show improved performance and stability for this service, the team was able to build up credibility for the rest of its roadmap.

But by mid-2018, the team realized that using multiple clouds became a limiting factor. While all of the different providers offered a plethora of interesting services, being multi-cloud meant the team had to limit itself to the lowest common denominator across the different providers.

“If you didn’t take the least common denominator approach, then you’d have this massive problem of having to train your entire staff on three different sets of architectures, three different groups of databases, three different types of messaging mechanisms, and on and on and on,” DiFonzo said. “So we really came back to, ‘hey, given where the cloud vendors are today — and this is two years from the initial point — do we really have a lack of confidence that any one of them really could fulfill our needs?'”

After an extensive search, the team decided to go with Google Cloud, based on its technology offerings and road map, but also because of Google’s acquisition of ITA, which gave it unique insights into how the travel space operates. Sabre was also interested in Google’s AI technologies, as well as Apigee’s ability to help Sabre manage its APIs — and, as DiFonzo noted, both companies also had similar engineering mindsets.

Even with hindsight, more than two years later and with new multi-cloud tools available like Google’s own Anthos or Microsoft’s Azure Arc, DiFonzo believes he would make the same decision. Indeed, Sabre actually uses parts of Anthos to manage its applications inside of Google’s environment. But maybe most importantly, DiFonzo argues, going with a single vendor allows its engineering teams to focus.

So far, Sabre has trained more than 3,600 employees on Google Cloud (and those employees have consumed over 67,000 hours of learning content on Coursera alone).

At this point, about 15% of Sabre’s mid-range workloads have been migrated to Google’s cloud, including 100% of its Hotel Customer Reservation System and Travel Solutions airfare shopping service.

That may be slower than some expected. A report in The Information earlier this year noted that Sabre had only spent about $10 million on Google Cloud so far. But DiFonzo argues that nobody should be surprised by this, and that the last year was all about laying the foundations, with the move now accelerating. Indeed, he expects that 75% of Sabre’s total compute capacity will be powered by Google Cloud by the end of next year.

“It took the time of training and building all the infrastructure — because our goal isn’t to just move machines immediately, it’s to be more efficient at the end of the day. All of the automation work and all of the planning work that went into this is now helping us move forward faster,” he said. That also means that the team is decomposing old applications into microservices, for example — which itself means that engineering and operations teams have to learn new skills. So it’s not just about containerizing existing applications, but also moving some applications to a serverless architecture using Google Cloud Functions.

“It’s going to take a little bit more work on our part to validate all that — performance and operation and scale, etc. But certainly, that just goes to the next level of how we continue to virtualize away a lot of the routine day-to-day management activities we have to deal with today,” he added.

As for bringing more AI-powered services to its customers, DiFonzo noted that he doesn’t want to have to build all of the infrastructure to do so. Together, Saber and Google are developing a new AI-driven platform to bring more of this technology to Sabre’s product portfolio. Sabre is also in the process of moving 11 petabytes from its core data sets to Google Cloud (with all data migrating by 2023), and it’s about to launch a new market intelligence product that uses BigQuery and Looker to predict travel demand.

“I want to stand on the shoulders of giants,” DiFonzo explained. “They have tens of thousands of engineers figuring out all this cool stuff. And I just want to put it to use as quickly and safely as we can here at Sabre.”