United Launch Alliance: Transforming how rocket software is built

At a Glance:

In preparation for the launch of its groundbreaking Vulcan rocket, United Launch Alliance sought to reinvent how it builds software by adopting an Agile methodology and deploying the full Atlassian toolset along with modern DevOps tools and processes.

Modernizing software development for a new generation of rockets

In its mission to harness the potential of space for humanity, United Launch Alliance (ULA) has developed the Vulcan Centaur, a next-generation rocket that is more capable, reliable, and cost-effective than previous launch vehicles. 

With its first launch in 2021, the Vulcan is expected to carry ULA—and US space exploration—into the future. As part of this bold endeavor, ULA recognized that it needed to completely reinvent how the company builds software. This meant replacing a host of legacy systems with Atlassian software and modern DevOps tools, migrating mission-critical data to the new infrastructure, and transitioning teams from waterfall to Agile methodologies.

ULA understood that when venturing into the unknown, it pays to fly with experts. That’s why the company partnered with 6kites to ensure a successful Agile transformation.

Innovating at rocket speed

In the face of industry disruption from Silicon Valley startups like Space X, ULA needed to make a dramatic leap from waterfall to Agile methodologies using the full DevOps chain (CI/CD). 

ULA partnered with 6kites to define and build a customized DevOps platform for flight and ground software, mission ops and many of the company’s software tools and systems. Additionally, the project involved migrating from legacy systems (including moving mission-critical repositories from Perforce to Bitbucket), establishing integrations with JFrog Artifactory to implement the CI/CD process and implementing integrated requirements and test case management with full traceability.

A roadmap for the future

In deploying the Atlassian stack, ULA recognized that it represented a massive change in not only technology but also how its teams worked. The company understood that transformation is a journey, not a destination. So, it’s essential to have a roadmap that looks beyond the business’ immediate objectives and anticipates how the platform will need to evolve and scale to meet future requirements.

6kites’ transformation consultants began by analyzing needs, documenting workflows, and gathering requirements from stakeholders across the organization. We then developed an architecture and platform roadmap for how this transformation would be rolled out across ULA and its product portfolio, while ensuring full traceability and compliance with federal requirements.

With a clear platform roadmap, 6kites consultants developed a licensing strategy for the Atlassian software (Jira, Confluence, Bitbucket, Bamboo, Fisheye, Crucible) and add-ons needed to solve for ULA’s requirements. From there, we worked closely with ULA’s teams to customize the software to their needs. This included everything from setting up Confluence templates to developing Jira automations and integrations to other applications. 

Along the way, 6kites migrated all of the data from legacy systems into the new environment. The term “mission critical” gets used a lot. But when you’re working with code used to fly rockets, any error could be disastrous. We wrote custom scripts to clean up the data, completely fill out complicated issue types, and ensure a seamless migration.

Exceptional governance and support 

Running a successful mission requires support beyond initial launch. ULA continues to partner with 6kites to support, evolve, and scale the new platform across the organization, with ongoing monitoring, health checks, upgrades, and governance.

Effective governance is critical to easing adoption while ensuring scalability. 6kites consultants have helped ULA develop a best-in-class governance framework, supported by a governance committee, policies and procedures, knowledge base, SLAs, and metrics and reporting. We serve on ULA’s governance committee, where we advise on best practices and provide guidance on the thorny issues that occasionally crop up. 

Today, ULA is innovating faster than ever, thanks to its successful transformation from waterfall to Agile tools and methods. We’re proud to be part of that journey, helping the company transform the future of space exploration.

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