Imagine competing in a cutthroat business with ever-tightening margins but little control over your costly distribution system. That's the frustrating situation for many suppliers in the travel and tourism industry.
Travel services providers engage in business through one of the leading global distribution systems (GDSs), which employ venerable technologies such as IBM's Transaction Processing Facility (TPF) software and are represented in the market by such products as Sabre Travel Network and Cendant's Galileo. GDSs were developed primarily by the airlines more than two decades ago and have since expanded — both in size and complexity — to incorporate hotel, car rental and other suppliers.
Now, with service-oriented architecture (SOA), these proprietary systems are facing Internet-based competition. Instead of 100 providers trying to interpret 100 APIs, SOA can ease the burden through open standards such as SOAP and XML.
"We've built an alternative distribution system," says Christopher Berlandier, CEO of Global Travel Exchange (GTrex), a provider of travel distribution technology. "Our Web services make it so that suppliers don't have to manage all those different API connections. They can push sales through our distribution system. They manage only one connection: to us."
Of course, that puts the burden on GTrex, which is counting on enterprise service bus (ESB) technology from Cape Clear Software. After spending three or four years trying to make it happen with CORBA middleware and then SOAP over HTTP, GTrex saw an opportunity to accelerate development using Cape Clear's ESB and SOA software. GTrex wants to relieve travel service providers of having to refashion applications themselves with SOAP, XML and other standards. GTrex gives its customers defined services, which can expose their existing systems to the network; GTrex then employs ESB and Business Process Execution Language (BPEL) technology to handle billing, process management, reliable messaging and other key functions.
"We are standardized on the Open Travel Alliance XML SOAP schema, which means that no matter who the provider is, everything is just a message," explains Berlandier. "In the past, suppliers had to change their whole mechanism if they changed anything at all. Using a standard front end, our customers can just change one word — say, Thrifty to Avis — and keep the rest the same."
Like a traditional GDS, GTrex gets paid on bookings, transactions and people looking up inventory online. The ESB must deliver a messaging infrastructure that can handle long-running transactions among a large number of participants, any one of which could be down at any point. While other ESB providers offer proprietary messaging with support for Java Messaging Service APIs, Cape Clear focuses its software on the OASIS WS-Reliable Messaging standard.
"We need reliable messaging because, obviously, if you're connected to 1,000 different providers and are booking transactions and taking in credit card information, you need technology that can guarantee that the data reaches its destination," Berlandier says.
Also critical for GTrex has been the ability to integrate SOA and ESB messaging with process management through BPEL. "This is very big in the travel industry because most people who need a hotel room also need an airplane ticket; groups and convention managers often require that these go together, often due to contracts with, for example, Marriott or Delta," Berlandier explains. "Process management allows us to pull 'hotel' and then 'stall' the process to make sure we have air with it and that the plans accord with the contracts. BPEL also lets us add fees, taxes and apply discounts. If we can do this and not lose any transactions thanks to reliable messaging, we can really accelerate our development time and offer more self-service solutions to our customers."
BPEL is "pretty verbose," Berlandier says, which has GTrex looking for horsepower. Network-attached processing (NAP) offered by the likes of Azul Systems is attractive because NAP can scale to "a mind-boggling number of threads," he notes. High-powered dual-core processors also will be important.
GTrex customers can employ BPEL to create and execute their own business logic, without a concern for what changes GTrex makes to its platform. The company sees this flexibility as its key competitive edge. "We're working with providers that understand what we have in terms of SOA, ESB and standards," Berlandier says. "Not everyone has bought into that yet." GTrex figures it can expand its business if it can prove its system lowers distribution costs:
"A 50 percent reduction could mean $500 million to some of the big players," he asserts. "We don't compete with Sabre today, but if we're relentless about connecting to more suppliers and utilizing our platform to drive down costs, we'll keep growing."