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At Orbitz, Linux Flies First-Class Leon Chism went open-source to cut hardware costs--and boost power--in the cutthroat travel business.
By Christopher Null

(Business 2.0) – PROBLEM

Create a clone of a major airline reservation system on a $3 million budget.

When online travel agency Orbitz opened for business in 2001, startups like Travelocity and Expedia, which controlled 70 percent of the market for Internet bookings, weren't necessarily its founders' chief concern. The big question was how to build a Web-accessible version of the 40-year-old computer reservation system used by most travel agents. Orbitz couldn't afford a mainframe booking system to compete with a giant such as Sabre; the machines required to run one would have devoured the company's $50 million in startup funding.

SOLUTION

Build a mainframe-like booking system employing a Linux "cluster."

Leon Chism, Orbitz's chief Internet architect, wanted to create a faster system by caching all the airlines' flight and fare data on a Linux-powered "cluster"--a group of servers and PCs that work in tandem or independently. The collective computing horsepower could run everything from flight searching to booking to serving webpages.

Instead of the 10 or so flight choices that agents typically retrieve from Sabre, the Linux cluster could get Orbitz customers more than 20 times the options. For Chism, the decision simply came down to money. "Some mainframe systems run $250,000 for 12 processors," he says. "I can buy an Intel machine with two processors for $4,000."

Chism purchased more than 350 servers and chose the open-source code he needed to link them. Then, by purchasing fare-search technology from ITA Software of Cambridge, Mass., Orbitz got what it needed to complete the loop.

The cluster's processing muscle is on par with that of Google: Each time you do a search on Orbitz, the system scours 2 billion fare combinations before it presents results. (More open-ended searches, in which the user is flexible about the date of departure, can explore 80 billion combinations.) Orbitz processes better than 1 million searches a day, up 75 percent from a year ago.

It's unclear how much a comparable mainframe system might cost, but Alex Lesser, VP at PSSC Labs, a Linux cluster provider, estimates that it would run 10 times the price. Still, clusters aren't for everyone: They require a bigger staff to manage, and the many components leave companies vulnerable to breakdowns--a big reason why they have thus far been relegated mostly to think tanks and academia. But Chism, for one, believes that will soon change. While he admits that he's "constantly" replacing machines, he points out that individual breakdowns don't create a crisis, since the rest of the cluster picks up the slack. Besides, he says, "there's just no machine big enough to run all this in one chassis."

The system's real benefit, Chism adds, may come when Orbitz expands the business; gross bookings last year were up 213 percent from 2001. "We won't have to go through a two-month sales cycle with Sun or spend millions on a new CPU from IBM," he says. "I just call up and order a couple more machines." If only running an airline were that simple. --CHRISTOPHER NULL