WAN Issues Drive Application Deployment And Architecture

If you're in the hospitality industry, nothing is more central to your business than ensuring premium service and accommodations for your guests. This goes beyond offering attractive living suites, fine restaurants, and every imaginable personal and business convenience. It also includes friendly customer service and ease of booking reservations. Sometimes the best option is to re-design your IT systems.

December 17, 2010

5 Min Read
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If you're in the hospitality industry, nothing is more central to your business than ensuring premium service and accommodations for your guests. This goes beyond offering attractive living suites, fine restaurants, and every imaginable personal and business convenience. It also includes friendly customer service and ease of booking reservations. Sometimes the best option is to re-design your IT systems.

The lesson is not lost on InterContinental Hotels, which runs hotels and resorts in more than 80 countries on six different continents. IHG has decades of investment in a world-class, proprietary reservation system that capably and reliably processes millions of transactions each year. Within this environment, the company can control application and system resources, data center assets, LANs and even major areas of its WAN. It has done so successfully for years, processing hotel and resort reservations that come in from points around the world at its Atlanta, Ga.-based data center.

But with the expansion of Internet use and a global economy that is now starting to register major demands for hotel accommodations in emerging markets like China, the Middle East, South America and Africa, IHG is looking for new ways to continuously improve the customer experience--and it is focusing its attention in an area of Internet WAN that it can't independently control with its time-proven transaction processing architecture--the technology and political limitations that impact high-speed broadband in China and other emerging customer demand regions such as the Middle East and Africa.

"We were seeing transaction latencies of 250 milliseconds each way on transactions from China that were being processed through our Atlanta data center," says Bryson Koehler, senior VP of revenue and guest technology at IHG. "The issue for us was simple. We are seeing a change in global traffic patterns for our reservations, and we also know that people are used to a great hotel experience regardless of which country they are booking reservations from. Our job is to make this experience as enjoyable throughout the world as it is in the U.S. or the U.K. This begins with giving our customers a pleasing experience when they book a reservation with us."

Guaranteeing a universally excellent level of customer service for reservation booking isn't easy. China has regulatory requirements and a set of rules that allow it to arbitrarily block Internet traffic into and out of the country. This affects reservations that have to travel across the WAN to IHG's Atlanta data center. In Dubai, the existing Internet server and firewall infrastructure is simply overwhelmed with demand. In the Philippines and in Africa, there is not enough fiber optic cable to guarantee high-speed, high-bandwidth transactions. And if you're in the hospitality industry, there simply is no way to improve reservation transaction performance when major issues involving the WAN are beyond your control. Or is there?Challenging conventional enterprise wisdom, IHG dared to imagine the "unthinkable." What if the company reinvented its reservation processing and data center architecture by locating pockets of transaction processing in the different geographical areas of the world that its hotels and guests were located in? "As a global company, we thought about this for several reasons, and you can look at China as a prime example," says Koehler. "China is our second-largest hospitality market, and we presently have 200 new hotels under construction that will add to this. Yet, 90 percent of the hospitality business in China is from domestic travelers. Few of these hotel guests travel outside of the country." To effectively serve this group with rapid transaction processing, IHG had to find a way to circumvent WAN firewall and policy constraints.

IHG decided to pursue several strategies:

  • Systematically "unload" transaction processing loads from its Atlanta-based data center to the various geographical locales that owned the transactions

  • Leverage cloud-based processing technology

  • Move away from internal infrastructure maintenance and proprietary system architectures to "commodity-based" processing on Intel servers that takes place anytime, anywhere


"We want to stay out of the IT infrastructure business and instead focus our attention on our core business, which is meeting the needs of our guests," says Koehler. "We are approaching this project by splitting our monolithic reservation data repository into data shards that can be located in the various geographical locations that we serve throughout the world. By doing this in a country like China, we can process all reservations pertaining to that market inside of the Chinese firewall, so we no longer encounter the latency or the WAN firewall issues that can impact customer service."

Koehler estimates that about 25 percent of data has been relocated, but it will take time to carefully transition data shards to different global locations. Nevertheless, the strategy points the company in a direction where it can leverage the benefits of cloud services, improve WAN performance and, most importantly, deliver premium guest services in a highly competitive market.

"By pursuing this approach, we're following a model that has already worked for global organizations like Amazon and Google," says Koehler. "From a transaction security standpoint, they have similar requirements. Transactions must be secure and reliable, and the cloud must be able to provide certified SAS70 and PCI [Payment Card Industry standards] results, in addition to meeting a rigorous set of SLAs [service level agreements]. The reality is, we don't expect this to give us a better return on investment than the traditional way we have been processing transactions, but we have to look at expanding our capabilities for a global network of business. We can do this by treating every one of our guests the same and not penalizing someone in another part of the world because of a WAN issue."

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