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Linux a fare deal for online travel agent

The mainframe just isn't mainstream anymore for online airfare agent Sabre Holdings, which announced that it's moving its lookup service to Linux and an open source database.

Linux is now a power behind the screen for millions of people making airline reservations on the Web, be it through online agents, major carriers or travel agencies.

Travel commerce leader Sabre Holdings Corp., a $2 billion global travel commerce online transaction services provider, is joining those ranks. Sabre announced it is moving a significant part of its Sabre Air Travel Shopping Engine (ATSE) low-fare lookup service to the open source MySQL database and open systems GoldenGate Data Synchronization software running on Linux.

"We're really pushing the envelope on travel technology by moving ATSE off the mainframe," said Alan Walker, technical architect of ATSE and vice president of Southlake, Texas-based Sabre Holdings' Sabre Labs. "A lot of people are building front ends to the mainframe, but they're not replacing mainframes on the back end," Walker said.

In 2000, the real-time data needs of Internet-based airline ticketing and services spurred Sabre Labs' researchers to explore ways to reduce costs while increasing the scalability and real-time capabilities of its reservation system. They quickly realized that proprietary systems did not offer the software- and hardware-selection independence and flexibility needed to stay current, or, as Walker said, push the envelope in travel technology.

Moving to open systems and open source software would also make it possible to save money by buying needed software rather than building it themselves, Walker said.

With this in mind, Sabre's team decided to change from its existing proprietary Hitachi mainframe to a hybrid architecture of Hewlett-Packard NonStop systems and a commodity server farm of low-cost Unix and Linux systems running open source MySQL databases.

"Today, low-fare searches driven by Web customers don't gain much revenue, and the look ratios are very high," Walker said. "A lot more people browse than really buy. So, we need to drive down the costs of the technology as much as possible, and with that in mind, we knew that we wanted to go to Linux."

MySQL wasn't as obvious a choice for a low-cost, mission-critical database, until it was tested, Walker said. "We looked at all applicable products on Unix and Linux, and we benchmarked about five different configurations on two or three hardware platforms," Walker said. "MySQL ran faster or as fast as any commercial database we tested."

MySQL also excelled in ease of deployment, stability and cost. "It was the fastest to get working, taking us two or three days to port our whole code base to it and get going. It never crashed," Walker said. "Then, of course, MySQL saved us million of dollars" over competing high-profile commercial databases.

The ATSE implementation began on the HP NonStop systems in mid-2002. In March 2003, Sabre began porting ATSE's compute-intensive low-fare lookup applications over to a hybrid architecture of HP-UX and Red Hat Linux servers and MySQL databases.

This is where GoldenGate Data Synchronization's cross-platform abilities came into play, capturing database changes made on the NonStop servers and replicating them at sub-second speeds to the hybrid servers. The software can replicate continuously, 24/7, at a standard batch transmission load of 300,000 updates per hour.

With GoldenGate, it was relatively simple to port to 45 HP-UX and more than a dozen commodity servers running Red Hat Linux, according to Walker. Data synchronization will also be needed as hundreds more Linux servers are added, as Sabre and ATSE grow.

"GoldenGate's core philosophy for moving data is speed, volume and diversity," said Tim Rathbun, executive vice president of GoldenGate. "Our technology has enabled Sabre to create a real-time engine that is faster, better, cheaper."

By keeping data across all servers in sync, GoldenGate tools continue to provide value after server deployments, Rathbun said. Data synchronization provides alternatives to traditional approaches to business continuity, such as mirroring, hardware-vaulting, and high-priced storage-management solutions for disaster recovery and high availability.

Sabre's largest mainframe for ATSE is scheduled for shutdown in the next year or, at latest, early 2005. "We're really pushing to open systems to keep our implementation costs down," Walker said. In this implementation, which is now in production, Sabre has already saved millions of dollars in systems and software acquisition and deployment and programmer costs. "It's a fairly aggressive project," he said. "And it's been successful."

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