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Case Study

How Skyscanner Decentralized Cloud Cost To Their Engineering Teams

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Cost Aware Engineering, Unit Cost Analysis
Project Leads Stuart Davidson, Platform Engineering Lead

The Challenge

Founded in 2003, Skyscanner originated as a flight comparison tool, but gradually evolved into an all-in-one travel planning hub. In 2019, Skyscanner served more than 100 million unique monthly users all across the globe. In addition to helping users find the best flights, hotels, and car hire options for their trips, Skyscanner pioneered showing consumers the carbon emissions of their flights at the point of purchase — helping mitigate the travel industry’s overall climate impact.

Prior to 2020, Skyscanner had felt limited pressure to manage their cloud cost. Since the company’s founding, annual air travel had more than doubled, and global tourism had been rising fast — driving healthy business growth for Skyscanner.

2020 presented a host of new challenges for Skyscanner. The COVID-19 pandemic decimated the global travel industry, reducing international arrivals from 1.4 billion in 2019 to 381 million in 2020. The shutdown halted tourism and produced about $1.3 trillion in export losses. This prompted the company to reexamine its business practices, including the tools they were using to manage cloud cost.

“The pandemic forced us to take a step back and re-evaluate our technology stack, so we could make sure we’d come back stronger than ever,” said Stuart Davidson, leader of Skyscanner’s Production Platform Tribe.

The Skyscanner team had been using a cloud cost management platform for a number of years. However, between their changing business needs, along with a recent move to Kubernetes — triggering a loss of visibility in the platform —  they decided it was time to consider alternatives.

Davidson and his team had a vision of decentralizing cost to engineering teams — giving them autonomy and ownership of cloud cost. They understood that engineers drive cloud cost, making them best suited to controlling it. They needed a solution that would support this.

Davidson decided to end the partnership with CloudHealth and look for a different cloud cost management tool — one that could provide actionable insights to engineers and improve cost visibility across the organization.

The Solution

Davidson discovered CloudZero, a cloud cost intelligence platform that delivers useful data about products and features to the engineering teams responsible for building them.

“We looked for ‘Kubernetes cost optimization,’ and CloudZero came up,” Davidson said. He was specifically drawn to CloudZero’s solution to providing complete cost visibility, marrying together AWS costs with allocated costs inside the Kubernetes infrastructure. 

“It was a compelling Kubernetes offering. We asked for a demo, and customer service was red hot. Unlike other vendors, CloudZero showed real technical credibility. We’re a tech-savvy company. We asked difficult questions, and CloudZero’s reps handled them well.”

The Skyscanner team sat down with CloudZero to embark on the onboarding process — which took “about 15 minutes,” as Davidson describes it. In the few weeks following the initial onboarding, CloudZero ascertained Skyscanner’s security policies, requirements, and needs; provided tags in accordance with Skyscanner’s internal infrastructure; and added a forecasting report to estimate future cloud cost expenses.

Almost immediately after onboarding, Skyscanner identified infrastructure that was running unnecessarily. CloudZero’s intuitive interface allowed Skyscanner to filter cost allocation by “Squad” and “Tribe” — Skyscanner’s names for their teams’ subdivisions. CloudZero gave visibility to the right people in their engineering organization. That way, the same engineers who built and managed Skyscanner’s products and functionalities could identify sources of unnecessary cost.

“One of our philosophies is: Act like the owner. You build it, you run it,” Davidson said. “Our engineers, therefore, feel a sense of ownership over the infrastructure they build. So, giving engineers the financial data to use cost metrics as a catalyst for meaningful changes made a lot of sense.”

The Results

For Skyscanner, the results came quickly.

“Within two weeks, we had already found enough savings to pay for a years’ worth of license,” Davidson said. “It was that good — that intuitive.”

Exposed excess infrastructure

CloudZero immediately gave Skyscanner a more detailed portrait of their cloud cost spend. Because it delivered these insights directly to Skyscanner’s engineers, they could clear away that excess instantly.

“CloudZero is an engineer’s tool,” Davidson said. “Engineers are the folks who switch things on and off. Engineers know what should and shouldn’t be running so it’s important to provide them the tools to empower fiscal autonomy when it comes to cloud cost spend.” With a granular image of what was running, engineers could easily identify and eradicate excess.

This allowed Skyscanner to leverage their philosophy of accountability — “You build it, you run it.” They could add cost management to the matrix of needs included in “you run it,” as opposed to routing cost management solely through the finance team.

Enabled daily improvements

By making the most current cost insights available to engineers on an immediate basis, CloudZero made it possible for engineers to make daily cloud cost improvements.

“If you’re improving by 1-2% every day, as opposed to making massive changes once a year, that’s much more effective in the long run,” Davidson said.

Skyscanner included CloudZero’s data in weekly operational reports, which had previously not included cloud cost metrics. Skyscanner injected static URLs detailing particular Tribes’ cloud spend in CloudZero, encouraging product owners to inspect them and take action.

This prompted immediate engagement. In the six weeks after Skyscanner implemented CloudZero, Skyscanner engineers were able to self-serve to set up accounts and log into CloudZero’s intelligence platform. Davidson traces back a particularly high level of engagement to Skyscanner’s emphasis on accountability.

Fostered a culture of fiscal responsibility

“One of our big goals coming out of COVID-19 has been to foster an even stronger culture of fiscal responsibility,” Davidson said. “That obviously extends to every dimension of our business, and cloud cost is a big one.”

The Skyscanner team understood that fiscal responsibility depends on both producing the right insights and giving them to the right people. By delivering cost metrics to the engineers who directly oversee their products, Skyscanner decentralizes cost reduction responsibility and refines its strategic priorities.

“For the next several years, we’re going to intensify cost reporting to engineers, enabling them to make smarter decisions within their orgs,” Davidson said.

“By getting product owners to look at these charts, they’ll be able to make more impactful decisions about how their Squad or Tribe should move forward. Reducing cost, for example, might have a more significant impact on our bottom line than launching a new product — or not. CloudZero helps us make those tradeoffs.”

Continuous improvement

Going forward, Skyscanner plans to work closely with CloudZero to refine and improve their cost intelligence. From further improving Skyscanner’s Kubernetes cost visibility to extracting PNGs for operational reports, Skyscanner wants to make CloudZero as strong an engineering asset as possible.

“When I work with vendors, I see it as a partnership,” Davidson said. “That’s how it’s been to work with CloudZero so far, and I look forward to seeing what we can accomplish in the future.”

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  • Organize cloud costs without perfect tagging
  • Measure COGS, unit cost, cost per customer, and more
  • Align teams around a common cost language
  • Empower engineers to see the cost impact of their work

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