Has Mainframe Technology Crippled the GDSs?

When the first global distribution systems (GDS), such as American Airlines Inc.'s Sabre, came on the scene, they pioneered the use of computers in large-scale commercial applications and the network-based e-commerce we take for granted today. Sabre Holdings Corp. and its counterparts, such as Galileo International, Amadeus and WorldSpan, handled unprecedented volumes of data and transactions as they booked millions of airline flights, hotel rooms and car rentals worldwide.

The rise of the Web has cost the GDSs much of their clout by providing a low-cost way for customers to access fare and other information. But how much blame should go to the GDSs for not moving more quickly to update the 1960s-era mainframe technology that's at the heart of their information systems?

GDS critic and competitor Jeremy Wertheimer, president and CEO of ITA Software Inc., says the GDSs' core systems just aren't up to today's requirements. He says the PC-based technology on which ITA's pricing software runs (and which is used on the Orbitz.com travel-ticket Web site, among others) can scale more easily and less expensively than mainframes.

"If you're trying to support many concurrent users over the Web, we can devote thousands of [low-priced computers] to that. In the mainframe context, you can't," says Wertheimer. Eventually, he says, the mainframe-based reservation and pricing systems "will fall over and be replaced."

He also criticizes IBM's 1960s-era Transaction Processing Facility (TPF) operating system, which at the time was the first to handle large volumes of transactions (such as airfare searches) in real time. TPF is fundamentally unsuited to the number and type of complex, real-time fare calculations generated by consumers shopping on the Web, Wertheimer says. While travel agents, the traditional users of these systems before the Web, might sell one ticket for every five fare queries they made to the system, says Wertheimer, "it's nothing for a Web site to have 100 visitors [asking about fares] of whom 99 buy nothing."

Wertheimer also claims that it's much easier to write complex operations, such as complicated fare comparisons, in modern programming languages than writing them to run under TPF.

Craig Murphy, Sabre's chief technology officer, acknowledges that it's harder to program in TPF compared with more modern operating systems, but he says that's why Sabre is gradually moving from TPF to Unix-based systems that can be programmed in C++ and Java. When the switch over is complete in 2004, he says, the critical work of "pricing" tickets -- committing to a final price for the customer and assuming any costs if that price is wrong -- will fall to fault-tolerant NonStop servers from Hewlett-Packard Co. (The servers were formerly called Himalaya before HP's acquisition of Compaq Computer Corp.)

The same code and data will run on less-expensive Unix servers to do the slightly less critical job of "shopping" (scanning published fares and showing them to customers). This combination, he says, will allow Sabre to inexpensively add capacity to handle an increase in the number of customers or a volume of fare searches without having to add more expensive NonStop servers.

In the end, the technology arguments may be moot, says Murphy. "We are all moving to the same place" of using more distributed systems for fare shopping and fare pricing, he says. "But we have different points of departure" because of the GDSs' existing businesses and IT infrastructures, Murphy adds. For one thing, he says, the ITA software allows customers to shop only for prices, not lock in ticket prices. The established GDSs also have a much higher volume of transactions to support than do "the upstarts," he says, making the task of cutting over to new technology more complicated. "We're trying to change the tires on a moving semi," says Murphy. "We have to have a very carefully planned migration."

Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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