Sabre to move off mainframe in $100M deal with Compaq

Sabre Holdings Corp. yesterday said it will shed its decades-old legacy system over the next few years at a cost of $100 million and move its airline registration database to Compaq Computer Corp.'s NonStop Himalaya servers and database system.

"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 reservations systems for more than 50 airlines.

In addition to being a massive technological undertaking, analysts said the move will change how airlines do business.

"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 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 languages like C++, Java and SQL.

"Airlines and travel consolidators will be able to update their fares in the Sabre system faster and with greater frequency and reliability than with any other e-commerce system in the industry," Sabre and Compaq said in a joint statement.

Howard Elias, a senior vice president and general manager of the Business Critical Solutions Group at Compaq, said his company is prepared for the challenge because it has moved massive databases off mainframes before. He said the 15 stock exchanges running on Compaq servers are an indication of the company's experience and reliability.

Sabre said it will take three to four years to move to a server environment, which will be done in three phases. The first phase, involving 192 CPUs, has already begun, according to Sabre Chief Technology Officer Craig Murphy, and should be complete and running by the beginning of next year.

Travel agents and customers may not notice the change, but they may notice fewer problems and delays in getting accurate data from the reservation system, Murphy said. At the same time, he said, Sabre will double its developer productivity and reduce cost of ownership by 40%. Murphy wouldn't say how much money that 40% represents.

Eventually, 16TB of Sabre's flight information will run through 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 move Sabre 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 any other database 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 airlines have had enormous lags in network performance.

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

Meanwhile, airlines will have to decide whether to continue with the legacy reservation system 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 that happens, Eastman said, "that's going to change the entire culture of the airline industry. The specifics of the technology are relatively incidental to what they're doing. What they're doing is changing the way that the travel product will be distributed."

"The real-time integration of Sabre data into [a] single database in [a] single location" is the goal, Murphy said. That will also allow Sabre and the airlines to build business logic into the reservation systems. For example, such business logic could automatically release seats at a lower price if the airline hasn't sold enough by a predetermined date in a practice known as availability caching. Or the relational databases could allow the airlines to sell some seats to third parties and divest themselves of some of the risk if seats aren't sold.

For instance, 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, and take the risk if those seats go unsold.

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.

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