Linux's Ticket To Ride

Open-source Linux fares well for Cendant's travel distribution services.

August 3, 2004

5 Min Read
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Large airline-reservation networks are considered among the most mission-critical of computer systems, outside of those run by trading exchanges and large financial-services firms. Their sheer volume and complexity made running them on anything but the fastest mainframes unthinkable.

Now that is changing, as one of the largest airline-reservation networks, Galileo, moves off such a system to Linux, underscoring the viability of an open platform for the most mission-critical of systems. According to a recent survey of large North American companies by Forrester Research, 53 percent are using Linux for mission-critical systems. Such a trend bears note by solution providers wary of Linux as an alternative to Unix for transaction-intensive applications--particularly those who don't think Microsoft's Windows data center server platforms are a cost-effective or scalable enough option.

"In more and more places, Linux is on the list to evaluate," adds Dan Kusnetzky, vice president of systems software research at IDC. "This doesn't mean it's always chosen, but organizations are looking at it because they are facing significant challenges, and they are looking to reduce costs wherever possible."

Cendant Makes Its MoveA number of factors are driving the shift to Linux. The technology is now scalable and reliable, for one. And the squeeze on the entire travel and hospitality industry is putting the greatest pressure on costs ever. Kusnetzky says that companies, in general, are looking to Linux as a way to cut costs and reduce the amount of hardware.

Cendant, a conglomerate whose holdings include Avis, Galileo, Howard Johnson Hotels and Web sites that include and, has been moving its systems onto Linux for years. Now Cendant's Travel Distribution Services, operator of its transaction-processing networks, including Galileo, is the latest to expand its reliance on Linux. Though Cendant CTO Robert Wiseman did not want to disclose the Unix systems the Linux-based systems are displacing, he said Cendant actually took its first steps away from the mainframe in 2001, when it migrated to systems running on Sun's Solaris.Although Solaris offered a cost improvement over the mainframes, Wiseman still thought he could do better. As a result, Cendant has swapped out the Unix systems in favor of IBM's Intel Xeon-based xSeries blade servers running Red Hat Linux 3.0. The system consists of more than 100 clustered four-way and eight-way X440 and X445 SMP blade servers.

Wiseman has forecast the new platform will reduce the cost of running its fare systems by 90 percent over three years. In addition, he estimates improving performance by taking hours off the preprocessing time to post new fares issued by airlines several times each day.

"I have become very enamored by the attractiveness of low-cost, redundant, smaller machines," Wiseman says. "You get much greater scalability, greater redundancy and a lower cost of operation. Total customer ownership is much lower."

It's not a decision a customer like Cendant tends to make lightly. Galileo processes up to 400 transactions per second and interfaces with hundreds of airlines. But Wiseman wasn't deterred. His previous employer,, an online travel agency owned by a consortium of airlines, also built much of its systems on Linux. Moreover, Linux has proved itself on some of the largest Web sites, including and Google. And Cendant's efforts aren't alone in the airline industry. Sabre also recently began to migrate its system used by airlines, travel agents and passengers to find and book flights, from mainframe to Linux.

Cendant originally signed a 10-year, $1.4 billion managed-services deal in 2001 with IBM Global Services. For the Galileo deal, IGS took responsibility for the installation and brought in partner Peak Resources for the blade servers running Linux. According to Vince DeRose, president of Peak Resources, his team served as experts in what he calls "short circuiting" the IBM-Intel supply chain."We have learned that in order to deliver on IBM's on-demand strategy in the Intel space, there must be a level of procurement, aggregation and integration that companies like IGS and Cendant find very valuable," he says. Cendant has looked to Peak to manage specific customer SLAs in terms of delivery accuracy.

While Galileo has a longstanding relationship with Peak, it works primarily with IGS. "We can call Peak and get prices, but we pretty much run it through IGS," Cendant's Wiseman says. Despite the fact that IBM partners often see IGS as a competitor, DeRose says that Peak hasn't experienced channel conflict.

"IGS is embracing IBM business partners in order to bring the best overall solution to the customer," DeRose says.

A Few ObstaclesIn general, one stumbling block to widespread Linux adoption comes from customers' in-house IT staffs and their lack of Linux know-how. Many want to turn to Linux to reduce costs in the hardware area, but there are still some staff-related costs to consider, IDC's Kusnetzky says.

"For an environment that isn't prepared for Linux, or doesn't have the Linux expertise in-house, they could find this very foreign to what they are doing," he says.The Linux learning curve can be quite steep, too, presenting a good opportunity for solution providers to get in on the growing market. But Kusnetzky says that any company already running Unix, such as Cendant, would be familiar with the commands and the architecture that Linux is based on, and therefore the switch would not be such a drastic change that would require additional personnel costs.

Another issue that plagues almost any customer making the plunge to Linux these days is the lawsuit by SCO against IBM, Novell and several large customers, claiming they are infringing on its patents. Wiseman says that was certainly taken into consideration, but didn't stop Cendant from moving forward. Still, the system is architected so that in a worst-case scenario, it could be moved back to Unix.

Cendant also has Linux plans beyond Galileo. Next, the company is switching over its Neat Group subsidiary, which runs a real-time booking engine for Galileo, to the Linux clusters. Next, Wiseman says he plans to move to Linux during the next 12 months.

"[Cendant is] opportunistically evaluating the others--starting with those that are not Microsoft-based," Wiseman says.

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