Sabre Sheds Its Mainframe Legacy

Massive switchover to Compaq servers may affect the entire airline industry

In a massive technological undertaking that analysts said will change the way airlines do business, Sabre Holdings Corp. is shedding its decades-old mainframe-based system.

Sabre announced last week that over the next several years, it will move its airline registration database system to Compaq Computer Corp.'s NonStop Himalaya servers at a cost of $100 million.

"This is not a project for the weak and squeamish," said Henry Harteveldt, a senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. Sabre hosts the reservation systems for more than 50 airlines.

"What this represents is a recognition of the need to respond to the new e-commerce travel model," said analyst Richard Eastman at The Eastman Group Inc. in Newport Beach, Calif.

Fort Worth, Texas-based Sabre is moving off an IBM transaction-processing mainframe reservation system that has been the airline standard since the 1950s. In its place, Sabre will create an open system based on more modern programming and database technologies like C++, Java and SQL.

Sabre said it will take three to four years to move to a server environment, which will be accomplished in three phases. The first phase, involving 192 CPUs, has already begun and should be complete and running by early next year, said Craig Murphy, Sabre's chief technology officer.

According to Murphy, the move will enable Sabre to double its developer productivity and reduce cost of ownership by 40%. He declined to say how much money that 40% represents, however.

Eventually, 16TB of Sabre's flight information will run on 4,000 processors and will be stored in relational databases with Sabre's proprietary fare-based search algorithm, Murphy said. It will be managed by Electronic Data Systems Corp., which will help Sabre make the move off the mainframe.

"[Sabre is] keeping control of the intellectual property," said Harteveldt. "They're really putting themselves at the heart of it, which is the brains. And they're letting EDS manage it and Compaq build it. It seems like a really smart move."

The most important aspect of the migration to the Himalaya servers is that seat availability won't hold up requests from the other databases on the system, Eastman said.

With the old mainframe, requests for information on seat availability had priority over requests for information on a departing flight, a meal or maintenance information. Add to that the millions of Internet users trying to book flights, and the result was enormous lags in network performance.

In July, Sabre and EDS finalized a 10-year, $2.2 billion agreement under which the Plano, Texas-based outsourcer will manage Sabre's IT operations. In addition, Sabre sold its legacy IT assets and outsourcing business for an estimated $778 million.

Meanwhile, airlines will have to decide whether to continue with their legacy reservation systems or upgrade to match Sabre's technology.

It will take a lot of work for the airlines served by Sabre to catch up with this advance, but when they do, Eastman said, "that's going to change the entire culture of the airline industry. The specifics of the technology are relatively incidental to . . . changing the way that the travel product will be distributed."

The goal, Murphy said, is "the real-time integration of Sabre data into a single database in a single location." That will also allow Sabre, with cooperation from the airlines, to build business logic into the reservation systems. Such business logic could automatically release seats at a lower price if the airline hasn't sold enough by a preset date—a practice known as availability caching.

The relational databases could also allow the airlines to sell some seats to third parties and divest themselves of some of the risk if seats aren't sold. For example, an online travel site such as Orbitz LLC or Expedia Inc. could "own" a set number of seats on an aircraft, for all its flights.

The technical migration, as massive as it is, won't be nearly as difficult as convincing airline managers of the business benefits of sharing maintenance, accounting and reservation information in one system, since those departments lose some independence in the process, Eastman said.

Attempts to obtain comments from the airlines were unsuccessful by press time.

Sabre's move is part of an ongoing airline industry shift away from the mainframe.

Delta Air Lines Inc. in Atlanta signed a deal last September to run its pricing and reservations operations on a farm of Hewlett-Packard Unix servers with software from ITA Software Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. ITA also supplied the booking engine for Chicago-based Orbitz.

In July, Quebec-based Air Canada announced that with IBM's help, it plans to move to an all-IP network.

Sabre Turns to Its Neighbor, Compaq

After four decades with IBM, Sabre has abandoned Big Blue for Texas neighbor Compaq.

IBM helped build the transaction processing facility (TPF) for American Airlines Inc. in the late 1950s and early 1960s that would become the Sabre global distribution system (GDS). IBM built a similar TPF system for Chicago-based United Air Lines Inc. That system later became the Apollo GDS.

So why didn't Sabre turn to IBM when it was time to update its infrastructure? Craig Murphy, CTO at Sabre, said that Compaq's plug-and-play capability and standard development kits were main reasons for choosing the Houston computer manufacturer.

Compaq, for its part, boasted that it has done this sort of thing before.

"We run the top 15 stock exchanges today," said Howard Elias, Compaq senior vice president and general manager of the Business Critical Solutions Group. "These systems just do not go down."

That Compaq and Sabre are neighbors probably didn't hurt either, said Richard Eastman, president of The Eastman Group Inc. in Newport Beach, Calif. But there are other considerations as well.

"IBM has a culture that would be threatened by what Sabre is trying to do now. IBM's airline people are all legacy mainframe guys. IBM's network guys don't have [business contacts] at Sabre, Eastman said. "Right now Compaq needs the business, and I betcha if their technology is essentially equal, pricing played a role."

Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

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