An online interface into the Galileo airline reservation system promises to open up flight information to a raft of new travel sites and information services B2B services offer travel information to all.
Just under three years ago a group of developers from Galileo, an airline reservation company in Denver, attended a Microsoft conference on .net.
Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, chief executive at Microsoft, presented their vision of business IT systems seamlessly communicating with one another using XML web services. In one example, Microsoft showed a video presentation of how a mobile phone user in the US could electronically book an appointment with a local GP and automatically have their health insurance details sent to the clinic.
The team from Galileo were inspired and, on their return, convinced Riaan van Schoor, manager for e-solutions at Galileo, that web services would revolutionise airline reservations. Van Schoor sponsored the project and, after 41,000 hours of development, Galileo introduced a web services interface to its global distribution system for airline reservations and flight information.
In 1994 Galileo began offering a Windows-based connection to their system using Windows' DDE (dynamic data exchange) technology to access the back-end host systems. Windows OLE (object linking and embedding) technology was introduced as an interface in 1999, followed by XML in 2000.
Industry commentators have long regarded linking internal systems as one of the biggest benefits of web services. Many see true business-to-business web services as a long way off, as the standards for inter-business transactions are still evolving. Even Microsoft has adapted its original vision.
Speaking recently to Computer Weekly, Simon Edwards, country manager in the UK and EMEA for Microsoft Business Solutions, said, "By the end of the decade we will see the decade run on web services."
True business-to-business web services may be many years away, but Galileo and other companies in the travel sector could point the way forward for web services technology.
There were three main business drivers for the project. Firstly, web services would reduce the need for Galileo's customers to master mainframe host connectivity. Galileo saw an opportunity to provide airline reservation information to online travel sites and other websites that required this information, but linking into Galileo needed to be simplified.
Previously, developers needed to understand the airline business to use Galileo in their applications, but this business logic has now been encapsulated in web services. "New age content providers do not want to deal with host-to-host connectivity," van Schoor said. "This allows us to attract customers who do not want to learn our API." For example, there are now web services for booking flights, querying arrival and departure times, and for planning trips.
It is not just travel companies that could use the web services interface with Galileo. Van Schoor said beta users include a Saudi firm developing an SMS-based travel information service. Such services could also be made available to taxi drivers to give accurate information on when a flight has landed.
The second driver was flexible and cost-effective client access into the Galileo system. Prior to web services support, a business that wanted to run Galileo required a dedicated Windows system connected over a leased line direct to the Galileo datacentre in Denver. "In Europe, getting a leased line to Denver is difficult. It is easier to connect over the internet," van Schoor said.
Some customers wanted Unix and other non-Windows systems. Furthermore, the Windows system needed to be configured and maintained. Customers can now connect over the internet from any device that understands Soap and XML. "A short-term benefit of using web services is that customers do not have to configure our software," van Schoor said. "We are using internet technology to drive down costs and expose access to the system."
Another area Galileo web services could be deployed is in corporate travel. By linking to the Galileo reservation web service, a corporate travel agent could offer business travellers a web page hosted on their company's internal website to provide airline bookings. "For the travel agent, the cost of rolling out this service is nominal," van Schoor said.
The third and biggest business opportunity was the provision of additional content via the Galileo system. "The most significant impact of web services is interfacing with other services," van Schoor said.
In particular, web services will offer a link with car rental firm Avis and a number of US hotel chains including Ramada and Days Inn, all owned by Galileo's parent company Cendant. "We can cross-sell within the group," van Schoor said. External information allows Galileo to provide other web services such as weather reports.
The web services architecture evolves an XML application programming interface called XML Select that Galileo began offering in 2000.
Robert Wiseman, chief technology officer at Galileo, said, "Web services are platform agnostic." While XML Select required customers to run a Windows 2000/XP desktop, customers can now use any system to access Galileo, as long as they connect over the web and use Soap and XML.
XML is used to create what Wiseman describes as "clever middleware" to provide an interface into the airline reservation data stored in Galileo's host computer systems and third-party data feeds. The web services are run in the "business logic" layer of the Galileo architecture, and communicate via the XML middleware.
As a cost driver, Wiseman said, "We are looking to deploy Linux wherever we can using commodity PC servers." This has meant that the business logic layer will run a mixture of Linux and Unix and the open source Jakata Tomcat application server from the Apache Software Foundation, which supports Java servlet and Java Server.
Wiseman said some services would be built using Java 2.0 Enterprise Edition and Enterprise Java Beans built on IBM's Websphere platform. These will also run on Linux where possible.
Both Java and .net services will be supported, and security is handled through a gateway at the front-end of the architecture. Wiseman said Galileo would be looking to evolve its web services architecture to re-engineer its applications. "Re-usability is a big driver," he said.
Galileo is one of four global distribution systems for national and international airlines. It was formed in the early 1980s by Air Canada, Aer Lingus, Alitalia, British Airways, KLM, United Airlines and US Airways. The system supports about 47,000 travel agents worldwide over an IP network and handles 350 million transactions daily. Prior to global distribution systems, booking a seat for a flight through a travel agent was often a manual process.
Web services technology is now becoming a driving force in the travel industry, according to Ian Tunnacliffe, an analyst with research firm Giga Information Group. "The days of a proprietary mainframe reservation system are rapidly disappearing," he said.
Although one of the barriers to the general availability of business-to-business web services has been a lack of standards, the travel industry operates under strict guidelines. "The travel industry has always been ahead of the technology curve because there is an understanding of co-operation," said Tunnacliffe.
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Galileo web services
Galileo will offer six main web services: a trip planner; a reservation builder; flight information services; travel code translator; an itinerary builder; and access to its XML Select API
The architecture supports other web services such as car rentals hotel bookings and weather reports
There is no need for a dedicated leased line to Galileo's datacentre in Denver because web services can be accessed over the internet
Smart XML middleware provides access to host flight information systems
Galileo has developed web services in both Java 2.0 Enterprise Edition and .net l Where possible, web services are run on low-cost Intel PCs configured with Linux and the open source application server Tomcat l Unix and IBM Websphere are used for web services that require high transaction throughput.
Case study: Virgin TravelStore
Leigh Brazier, development manager at online travel company Virgin TravelStore, sees plenty of scope to simplify his workload using Galileo's web services. The company currently runs a database of discount air fares that uses Galileo to check for seat availability.
Previously the flight information required Windows 2000 servers, an application based on Microsoft's Com+ architecture and a leased line. Now, he said, "Galileo hosts the applications, which reduces my management headaches."
Brazier said he would no longer need to run a leased line to Galileo's Denver headquarters, resulting in substantial savings. There is also the question of reliability. "When the network goes down, we lose our flight information," he said.
Brazier is looking to develop an application with Galileo's web services within Virgin TravelStore's call centre. Unlike a customer who logs into the site from outside, when operators take a call from a customer they can only see the database of discount fares. Operators had to go into Galileo separately to check if seats are available.
Brazier said creating a seamless link between the discount air fares database and seat availability information from Galileo would have required a second leased line to the call centre from Denver. With web services, this connection to Galileo can now be made over a standard internet connection.
Another bonus for Brazier is the business logic layer, which he believes will offer a far easier API for the Galileo system. Brazier said programming Galileo used to be difficult. "When I first started using Galileo it was quite complex as you needed travel industry knowledge to decode the information it provided. You can't really go on a training course. You have to build this knowledge in-house," he said.