Migration maze

The move from mainframe-based reservation systems to open system platforms is inevitable; getting there though is a challenge.

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By  Neil Denslow Published  April 1, 2004

I|~|broer_m.jpg|~||~|GDSs and airlines around the world, including Middle East carriers, are beginning to face up to the fact that they will soon need to migrate their reservation systems off their existing mainframe systems and onto an open systems-based platform instead. The transition will generate a number of benefits for carriers and GDSs, including quicker time to market, lower support costs and greater customer relationship management (CRM) functionality, but the migration process promises to be an enormous challenge that will cost a considerable amount of time and money. Mainframe-based reservations systems have been a standard in the industry for 40 years. These systems have a number of advantages including their speed of operation and high level of reliability, which allows airlines and GDSs to use them to process huge amounts of ticketing data. For instance, the mainframe-based Mercator Airline Reservations System (MARS) is expected to handle 20 million bookings this year, including all of Emirates’ passengers, as well as SriLankan’s, Air Algerié’s and, from May, Kuwait Airways’s. The system is hosted on an IBM mainframe that has eight processors. Emirates, however, only uses two at present, which means that the system can grow to support the carrier’s future needs. “The mainframe hardly ever breaks down [and] it is scalable,” says Rob Broere, information services manager, Emirates Airline. “It can go from two to eight [processors] without stopping the machine. All we need to do is call up IBM, they give us the software key and suddenly this thing is more powerful... Supporting the growth of Emirates up to 2020 should not be an issue based on the hardware that we can buy today,” he adds. However, while mainframe systems have a number of benefits, they also have a number of drawbacks, which means they are destined to be replaced eventually. The biggest problem is that the systems have been built up over 30-40 years with numerous minor changes made over the years to support new product launches, regulatory changes or directives from IATA. As such, the programmes are a mess of subroutines that no one really understands, which means that making further changes requires a huge amount of testing. “That’s one of the problems with the [MARS] system,” says Broere. “It’s not properly documented, even though it works and everybody knows that it works.” “The problem with legacy systems is that you need an awful lot of programmers,” agrees Bob Thorpe, vice president, applications competency centre, SITA INC. “They [legacy systems] have been around an awful long time, and although the actual re-programming may not take long, you have to do a huge amount of testing to see that a change is not affecting something else that was done 10 years ago,” he explains. The cost of hiring large numbers of programmers is compounded by the fact that legacy systems are written in old languages, such as TPF, that are not now widely taught. It will therefore become increasingly difficult to find programmers able to work with these systems as those who know the language retire. “Kids coming out of college today do not want to learn TPF,” notes Thorpe. Developing on new platforms is therefore cheaper, because of the lower staff costs, and also quicker, as programming is much faster when using new systems. Firstly, there isn’t a mess of subroutines to deal with, so programming and testing is much more straightforward than with old systems. Beyond that, developing and testing in new languages, such as Java and C++, is much quicker anyway. Debugging applications, for instance, make finding a problem much more straightforward, and these have helped increase programmer productivity by up to 800%. “You are therefore able to react much more quickly [to market changes] with the new technologies than the old ones,” notes John Dabkowskiy, senior vice president, Navitaire. The technological limitations of mainframe systems also curb what they can do. Most noticeably, these systems are unable to display graphics, which increases staff training costs, as the interfaces are less user-friendly, and also slows down transactions, as data needs to be entered via a keyboard rather than with a click of a mouse. “The old systems have green screens, so you can’t display a graphical inventory map, you can’t display logos of your connecting partners, you can’t divide [the systems] up into tabs [and much else,]” comments Vinay Dube, vice president, EMEA, Sabre Airline Solutions. These mainframe-based systems are also now much more expensive than systems that run on Intel-based servers, which offer the same level of robustness and computing power. “Anyone that can move something off [a mainframe] and has any financial sense at all will, unless the mainframes go and dramatically change their pricing structure,” says Jeremy Wertheimer, president & CEO, ITA Software. The mainframe-based system are also much more difficult to integrate with other systems, such as a frequent flyer applications, an internet booking engine or self-service check-in kiosks, as they were not designed to be linked into systems. By contrast, modern open systems, as their name suggests, are optimised to be as easily connectable as possible. “The traditional reservations systems… were built without this open connectivity in mind,” notes Dabkowsky. The business benefit of this openness is that information within the reservations systems is more readily available. This then means that data in the system can be analysed directly, for instance, rather than having to be replicated into another system with all of the expense and difficulty this entails. Open systems are also easier to integrate with other companies’ systems, which means that cooperating with others is much more straightforward. Sabre’s interline e-ticketing hub, for instance, allows an airline to integrate its reservations systems with just one other system in order to connect with all of its partner carriers rather than having to do connect to each other airline on a case-by-case basis. Similarly, when outsourcing back office functions, linking up the carrier with the service provider is greatly simplified through the use of open systems. “It helps people on the outsourcing front, and that will help people reduce the costs significantly,” notes VK Mathews, chairman & managing director, IBS Software.||**||II|~||~||~|The key drive for the change, however, is the rise of the internet, and online ticketing. This is transforming the airline industry allowing carriers to sell tickets directly to the consumer, and thereby cut travel agents and GDSs out of the sales process, as well as their fees. However, the ability to successfully undertake online sales is severely hampered by having an older system; for instance, it might not be able to handle the rising number of enquiries and it certainly won’t offer the same level of sophistication as modern reservations system designed to support e-bookings. “Because reservation systems were built 20-40 years ago, the internet booking engine was a much later addition that was tacked on the outside, and hence has all the limitations you would expect,” comments Dabkowskiy. Despite the numerous advantages offered by open systems, airlines and GDSs are not throwing out their mainframes just yet. The reason for this is the sheer complexity and risk that designing and then migrating onto a new system entails. “It’s very important to remember that Sabre [for instance] is a 40 year old company, and you do not get rid of 40 year old technology overnight,” says Henry Harteveldt, vice president, Forrester Research. This is an area where start-up carriers have been able to gain an advantage, as they are able to quickly set up a reservations system inhouse without having to invest in expensive mainframes. They are therefore able to cut their reliance on the GDSs, have greater flexibility and reduce their costs. However, the GDSs and established carriers like Emirates, are now having to tackle the challenge of how and when to move from the legacy environment to an open systems-based solution, while also updating their existing platform to make it more efficient and user-friendly. “In the short term, we are addressing the weaknesses [of mainframes], but in parallel we are looking at the longer term, and in the longer term it is open systems, there is no debate about this,” says Broere. As a temporary measure, Emirates is deploying an XML-based interface on top of its reservation system, which eases the integration challenges. This was key for the installation of self-service check-in kiosks at Dubai Airport, for instance. Similarly, XML is being used to create a graphical front end that will allow staff to access the reservations systems. “That’s the short-term stopgap,” says Broere. “By putting this [XML layer] in place, we no longer have to worry about getting immediate answers. We can provide the corporation with the things they need to grow, while in the background we can think about the bigger long-term picture,” he explains. Other carries around the world are following a similar process. Virgin Atlantic, for instance, is building a call centre application on top of SITA’s Runway middleware, which eases the integration with the reservations system. “One of the best ways of migrating [onto a new generation system]… is to use a package like Runway within the airline,” adds SITA’s Thorpe. “Then you can build the graphical user interfaces or whatever you want on the front end and the connectivity to the back end. It is then a much easier migration to move away from the legacy back end inventory system to the new generation solution,” he explains. The IT providers are aiming to make the switchover as smooth as possible through a graduated migration path. IBS Software, for instance, is releasing its iRes system in three major instalments over a few years to help airlines make the move. Sabre is similarly taking a phased approach. “For a system like a reservations system… we want to do things piece-wise to maintain our high availability and reliability,” explains Dube. Broere suggests that Emirates will take a similar step-by-step migration path, although the carrier is still at the very earliest stages of planning this. Even the first component to be migrated is yet to be decided, instead it will probably emerge when some outside event, such as a new business process or regulation, forces a major re-write of a particular system. At that point, the component will be re-written from scratch in a modern language and hosted on severs. Subsequently, more and more of the reservations system will be incrementally migrated across until it is too expensive to keep both the old and new systems running. “Once you pass a critical mass… you have to do the rest as well, as it doesn’t make sense to keep [the mainframe],” he says. “When are we ever going to get that stage? I don’t know. It could be 10 years time; it could be earlier,” he adds.||**||

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