Open source software makes its mark in the airline industry

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This story is sourced from Airline Business
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The collaborative, fast-paced innovation of the open source community may not, at first glance, seem an obvious fit with the airline IT sector's heavy reliance on specialist mission-critical systems and software. But forget the cliché of computer geeks tinkering with obscure bits of code in their spare time or any ideas that because the licence is free, it is no match for proprietary products. Open source is mainstream. The Linux operating system, for example, which runs on data centre servers around the globe, has a proven heritage of more than 20 years.

Canny airline chief information officers are reaping the cost benefits of incorporating open source software and systems into their technology stack. They are also drawing on the global talent pool which underpins open source solutions to help them gain an innovative edge. They are even considering how they can learn from open source methodology to foster collaboration around next-generation travel apps.

Against this backdrop, travel technology provider Amadeus this year opened up one of its core technology frameworks for supporting high-performance online and mobile apps to the open source community. Around the same time, SITA launched a development portal to enable industry players to access some of its data or processes via application programming interfaces (APIs). Although SITA's project is not open source, the philosophy behind it is part of a broader spirit of openness. What underpins both Amadeus and SITA initiatives is the desire to kick-start a new wave of travel apps by easing access to underlying technology or data.

Community service

Admittedly, most airline front-line systems are unlikely to switch to open source alternatives any time soon. Aside from mission-critical issues, these specialised systems do not have the scale to attract a large open source community. However, airlines and their technology partners are embracing open source behind the scenes, particularly in software used in data centres and some of the components of business intelligence (BI) solutions.

"Three to five years ago no-one used open source. Now we're doing it at Amadeus and we're seeing airlines doing it as well," says Denis Lacroix, Amadeus vice-president for product development, sales and e-commerce. "We know of airlines looking at open source customer relationship management packages because there are now credible open source CRM systems. If you are a small, up-and-coming airline, why not? Airlines, along with others such as banking and oil companies, have been a lot more cautious with open source than other industries. It's really down to people adjusting to the reality of open source, where [you] have some extremely good software out there."

Air Baltic is taking an innovative approach to its BI solution, basing development of its passenger data warehouse on the PostgreSQL database management system and Pentaho business analytics products. "I know that other airlines are using free software as well, and its use is probably most popular in those areas where the dots have to be connected by custom development - the BI field being a natural candidate here due to the large number of data sources which need to be integrated," says Axel Faustmann, Air Baltic senior vice-president for information systems.

Air Baltic's technology stack uses a number of free software products to maximise the cost/benefit ratio. Admitting that given unlimited financial resources, the best-of-breed products will most likely come from closed source commercial vendors, Faustmann nevertheless says a free licence is hard to beat, particularly when it comes to data warehousing. "Commercial databases are priced mostly based on the performance of the server on which they are running," he says. "For data warehouse projects, servers generally need to be quite powerful. As a result, the licence price easily enters the six-digit domain - before a single key performance indicator is created, and with similarly significant maintenance costs following."

The drawback of this open source route is that system performance can sometimes be weaker than from a high-end commercial product. But there are ways around that too. "In our experience, this can be offset by using more powerful hardware, at a fraction of the cost," says Faustmann. "There are limits to this approach once data volumes cross a certain threshold, but for small and midsized airlines this should work out fine. Our main dimensional model holds about 150GB of data and we are adding more through on-going collection and functional extensions every month."

Big data domain

But open source is not only the domain of hybrid and smaller carriers. Air France-KLM uses open source extensively behind the scenes, deploying open source tooling in the developer environment and using Apache's web server Linux and Tomcat, a server that runs web applications written in Java. It is also investigating open source environment Hadoop to manipulate big data. For Gregor Baues, Air France-KLM's chief architect for application infrastructure, a key benefit is the ability to customise open source products to specific requirements. "We can do things in terms of tooling, make it more tailor-made, custom-designed to what we really need."

The other benefit, he adds, is open source software is leaner. "Open source is less resource-consuming, [more] flexible and is designed to do what we need." However, you still have to consider the total cost of ownership and undertake due diligence. "Just because the licence is free does not mean that it costs nothing. You still have to do the same as with other software to make sure you get the best benefit out of it. Introducing open source on a large scale and within sometimes critical projects and infrastructure environments requires stable and viable communities such as the Apache Foundation."

Community is the key benefit of using open source. Professor Jim Norton, policy advisor to the UK Parliament's office of science and technology, says: "The reason people are doing this is you get a significant advantage of ease of access to innovation. There is a much bigger pool of talent in which to fish." In Open for Business, a white paper on the value of shifting to open source software in high-performance transaction processing systems, sponsored by Amadeus and published in September 2012, Norton elaborates further: "Developed over the last 20 years, the open source community now numbers in the millions software architects, analysts, designers and programmers. The community also extends to key universities and facilitates access to leading-edge research."

Generation game

In fact, a generation of IT professionals has grown up with open source, with the result mindsets are changing. "I see it rolling out quite quickly," says Norton. "They have not just grown up with open source, they have grown up with an open web, and if they get an issue they will key it into a search engine and expect someone else to have ideas. They are used to a community that thrives on openness and sharing. It's a different attitude."

For Virgin Atlantic IT director David Bulman the most important element of open source is the underlying methodology that brings disparate people together to develop products in a coherent fashion, and which can be "quite fast and furious in terms of development pace". He adds: "Open source is all about emergent standards. Open source methodology tells you how you can do that in a structured manner - how can you work with people that might be competitors to decide something."

Bulman is trying to create the next generation of mobile apps that will unite all flight, check-in and airport information. It is a project Virgin is actively pursuing with a couple of airports and Bulman is keen to learn from other industries. "Retailers have used open source technology to get interconnectivity and share inventory. If we follow these models there are some quite interesting things for airlines," Bulman says, adding: "If you wait for standards to catch up it can be quite difficult. But if we can use the open source method of agreeing some air transport industry standards about how that interconnectivity would work, we can move much faster."

Amadeus is also convinced the open source community offers a faster route to travel app innovation and has given one of its core technology frameworks - the ARIA Templates - an open source licence. During the past three years, Amadeus has used ARIA internally to develop web-based products, including Altéa Reservation Desk Top Web, the internet-based interface for airline reservation agents; and Selling Platform Connect, a web-based GDS interface for travel agents. ARIA also powers the latest release of Amadeus's consumer-­facing mobile apps for airlines.

Lacroix admits the company thought hard before giving ARIA away. "In the end we thought it was a risk, but the framework is not an application. Anyone using it still needs to be a very capable engineer and we have such a head-start that the risk is quite low compared to the benefits." And the benefits? "If it gains traction it will allow the framework to move and get better much faster than if we do it with our own resources. We will contribute to the framework because we have a commitment and our engineers are making it better for our own use."

The initiative is a chance to ease some challenges associated with developing travel apps. "Consumers want apps, but they are extremely expensive to deliver. We can deliver user experience without going through all the pain. There's a cost advantage," says Lacroix. "I suspect the initial impact will be on airline IT departments and we'll use our airline relationships to promote it. I don't think the framework will change the core procurement policy of an airline, but if an airline contracts someone to build an app, maybe they will tell them to take a closer look at this framework because - if used properly - 'my bill will be lower'."

Creating travel apps that include destination and concierge services will require data access. For SITA chief technology officer Jim Peters, travel app evolution will be led by the ability to use APIs and mash up different data sources into apps for travellers. This is where SITA's developer.aero portal kicks in and more than 100 airline developers have signed up for the initial trial. SITA has ideas for about 36 APIs but is starting with three: access to SITA's reservation and check-in system; BagTrac, which tracks checked bags during the journey; and Mobile Boarding Pass, SITA's solution for a complete 2D IATA-compliant mobile boarding pass that will work with any check-in system and is compatible with upcoming technologies such as Apple's Passbook for iOS6.

"It will be a lot more cost-effective than every airline trying to get this data for themselves," notes Peters. He also sees it as a step in the right direction in terms of multiple industry stakeholders agreeing data-sharing standards, with APIs providing access to data locked in back-end systems. "Developer.aero is an example of next-generation mobile app ecosystem technology that can be used to solve some of these traditional problems in the legacy environment," he says.

Collaboration around APIs is a potential game-changer in the industry. "My hope is that we will start to see some exciting initiatives in the check-in and bag-drop capabilities," says Richard Clarke, director of Travel Technology Research. He adds that API can change the industry: "The cost of building reservation and departure control systems is so prohibitive [that] potentially there's a massive opportunity for technology and the airline industry to collaborate around a set of APIs, and for collaboration that could change the technology."