Online leisure and travel retailer Lastminute.com is changing its server and database architecture to cope with an expansion in its "dynamic packaging" holidays.
The company intends to offer users the ability to package all products - from flights and hotel rooms to train tickets, car hire and restaurant and attraction bookings - in any combination by next summer.
This increased functionality will put huge pressure on Lastminute.com's IT systems, said Luther Garcia, manager of global e-commerce at the company.
"There will be millions of possible iterations with dynamic packaging. For example, we are linked to about 45,000 hotels, so the complexity of the search will be massive," he said. "We have to look at innovative ways of coping, as the traditional database is not scalable enough."
The company has already migrated most of its applications from four large Sun Sparc servers to 70 Intel Xeon processor-based blade servers, with a single image, running in four IBM xSeries blade centres.
"We found we kept having to increase capacity because the firm's rapid growth meant the server load was increasing by 70% to 100% each year," Garcia said. "Rather than put more high-end servers in, we changed the architecture."
Next year, Lastminute.com will be one of the first companies to use IBM's JS20 product, the first blade server based on 64-bit IBM Power processors, which was launched last week. "All our new applications will be written on 64-bit IBM blades," Garcia said.
Lastminute.com is also splitting its databases, which are primarily based on Informix products, into smaller segments to improve the quality of data.
"We are breaking our databases apart as it makes sense to have more databases split into vertical functions," said Garcia. "We are also making some fairly radical changes to our user interface, moving our application servers from Dynamo to JBoss and putting in a new content management system."
Tony Hart, managing analyst at Datamonitor, said using smaller databases would allow the site to run more smoothly and improve supplier relationships.
"By not putting all its eggs in one basket, Lastminute.com will be able to run more efficiently," he said. "It may also allow for clearer data synchronisation with its suppliers."
Other companies with multiple suppliers may also adopt a similar strategy, Hart said. "It would improve data integrity and help them meet supplier relationship requirements," he added.
Lastminute.com's technology strategy is based on being first to market with new products, with return on investment coming a close second. This puts a great deal of pressure on the company's IT team, said Garcia.
"Being leading-edge is a huge challenge for the technology team," he said. "With growth at 70% to 100% a year, integration, performance and scalability are issues we always have to address. Because we work at speed, other things have to be sacrificed, such as rigorous testing - we have to troubleshoot as we go."
Garcia said Lastminute.com is in a unique position because of the number of technical upgrades it makes to its portfolio of websites.
"We do an important release once every two weeks, which means we have a different philosophy to large enterprises which do releases every few months," he said. "Part of the challenge is to automate that process as we have lots of sites. Moving this quickly brings great complexity."
What has the company done?
- Moved from four Sun Sparc servers to 70 Intel-based IBM blades running in xSeries blade centres. It will use 64-bit IBM processor based Blades next year
- Split Informix-based databases into smaller segments
- Information is stored in an Informatica datawarehouse
- Moved application server and content management software from Dynamo to JBoss
- Volantis multi-channel application server software used for creating content in adevice-independent format.