Travel agencies continue to lose business thanks to the Web, but now some of the biggest firms are seeking ways to lure customers with services that cater to their unique needs.
Sabre Holdings, the owner of Travelocity, is turning to Oracle 9i RAC to ramp up its Travel Network business, a private distribution system used by travel agents to book hotels. The move is part of a strategy to allow agents to conduct a search for clients based on hotel amenities, said Kyle Moore, director of air shopping, car and hotels at Sabre.
Previously, travel agents were limited in their ability to search for specific client needs. With the new system, agents can choose a hotel for a customer based on several choices, including whether the customer wants a king or queen bed, whether a full breakfast is desired or whether the customer is happy with just a bowl of cereal in the morning.
To give agents more control over searches without clogging its IBM Transaction Processing Facility (TPF) mainframes, Sabre chose to build a clustered environment using an Oracle 9i database running Unix, Moore said.
TPF's were developed by IBM in the mid-1960s, to process and handle large airline and hotel bookings across time zones. Big Blue began selling the product in 1979.
"Our mainframes were lightening fast, but the ability to query specific type information out of them was very difficult," Moore said.
The Sabre project was conducted in several phases, beginning last year when developers took three different data stores from the TPF mainframes and collapsed them into a single environment, Moore said. After months of testing, travel agents were then connected to the new Oracle environment, which went live last week.
Sabre designed a custom application to handle a search based on customizable amenities. The new search tool allows seven hotel features, such as high-speed Internet access, allowing agents to tailor the hotel to their customers' needs.
"Oracle turned out to be easier than we expected," Moore said. "When you roll out something with this big of a change, you expect some challenges."
The only problems were at the application level, where minor bugs had to be worked out before the system went live, Moore said.
Upgrading outdated systems has been a growing trend in the airline and travel industry according to analysts. Southwest Airlines also completed an upgrade of its Oracle DBMSes onto Oracle 9i, putting it in production in October.
Southwest still uses several Sybase systems and SQL Server for some commercial off-the-shelf software. The airline has also been mulling over Linux plans.
Oracle is using upgrades to Oracle 9i as the basis of its grid computing strategy. The company promises that grid computing will help customers build large-scale computing capacity from inexpensive, standardized components, such as clusters of server blades and rack-mounted storage, said Noel Yuhanna, a senior analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc.
Instead of adding nodes to the existing cluster as the workload increases, Oracle 10g will allocate system resources based on need, Yuhanna said.
"Oracle has done a good job using its RAC technology as the foundation of its grid strategy," Yuhanna said. "I expect more companies to adopt grid as it matures over the next several years."
While Oracle is becoming a big part of Sabre's Tulsa, Okla.-based data center, which is run by Plano, Texas-based IT outsourcer EDS, Sabre still uses a mixture of MySQL, SQL Server and other systems to handle different loads and travel functions, Moore said.
"Our data center evolved back in days when these were airline-based systems," Moore said. "As our legacy systems get phased out, we'll be looking to streamline and simplify our environment."