Lee Hayhurst reports on how Sabre sees the global marketplace developing and what it is planning to usher in during a new era of intelligent, personalised, mobile and social technology
Sabre Travel Network has had a base in Poland for 12 years, but has recently ramped up operations significantly at its large development centre in Krakow.
In September, the company held its annual Media Week in Poland’s second-largest city for the first time, instead of its global headquarters in Dallas, to showcase the work it is doing there.
The Krakow office has more than 1,000 employees – most of whom are Polish graduates drawn from thousands who attend the nearby universities – mainly focused on software development.
The facility proudly shows off its Polish ‘great place to work’ award for companies with 500 employees or more, which it has won two years in a row.
The Krakow base is becoming an increasingly important centre for Sabre as it works on the next generation of technologies that will power airlines, hotels and travel agencies around the world.
Media Week kicked off with an overview of the technology industry from Sabre’s chief technology officer Robert Wiseman.
The rapid development of the internet and the processing power of computers will make what seems like magic today commonplace within decades.
Robert Wiseman, Sabre chief technology officer, said his team’s top priority was to work out how Sabre is able to support exploding look-to-book ratios as the web becomes ever more complex.
He said the emerging travel distribution network was really a huge marketplace “for suppliers of content and consumers of content to come together and transact business”.
Like with all the global distribution systems, Sabre’s commercial model means it gets paid only once a booking is made, which means it is having to react as customers shop around more before they commit to a purchase.
“Go back to the pre-internet times. The look-to-book ratio – the number of searches an agency would make for someone trying to find a low fare – was about 10:1,” said Wiseman.
“One of the great things about the internet is more access to more content. Our responsibility to the consumers of our content is we have to go out and find that content throughout the world. Because this gives us access to everyone else, those look-to-book ratios have gone from 10:1 to 100:1 and in some cases 1,000:1.
“And not only has the number increased but the complexity of those transactions has increased and the technology savviness of the consumer has increased.
“My team comes into play when we look at how can we continue to support this massive growth in look-to-book ratios.
“We have to take that extra complexity and not only maintain response times, but make them faster and faster.
“We have to be at the forefront of looking at new technology. So, we partner with leading technology companies around the world, for our benefit and theirs.”
As part of this, Wiseman said Sabre had invested in three Big Data Oracle servers worth $1 million each and it is working with Intel on a customised computer ‘shopping’ chip able to handle more transactions.
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Wiseman said the focus for Sabre was on the technologies that make it and its customers different from the opposition.
“The big focus in my career has been on simplifying technology as much as I can.
“One of our core strategies from a technology standpoint is to focus as many resources on those things that differentiate us and our customers from the competition.
“Nobody books on lastminute.com because it runs on a Linux system, they do it because it gives you the right fare at the right price and in a meaningful way. That’s where we should focus our smart people.
“In IT one of the problems we have is that we have too many technicians. Everyone wants to reinvent the wheel.
“Our responsibility is to focus people and resources on the things that users actually see.
“Differentiation is really about content, depth and breadth of content, and access to that content. Without the intelligence around the content that we have, it just becomes chaos.
“Our shopping engine is probably the best example of that. As time goes by, presentation will largely be the differentiator.”
Wiseman described Sabre as one of the planet’s most important companies most people have never heard of, due to the critical airline and other travel systems it operates 24/7, 365 days a year.
“We do not get to do upgrades at the weekends. We have to make changes to database hardware while our systems are running hot and while processing large volumes of transactions.
“We build our systems knowing they are going to break and how we are going to recover is part of our culture.
“Our technology vendors understand that if their products work under these conditions, then their technology is really going to work.”
One area Sabre is particularly looking at developing is cloud computing environments.
Average internet network speeds are about 30MB/s (the recently launched Google fibre offers one gigabyte) by 2020 that is projected to rise to one terabyte.
To download an hour of video (700MB) took 28 hours in 2000, three minutes in 2010, just six seconds in 2011 and will take six one thousandths of a second by 2020
Wiseman said the Sabre system has to operate with a lot of excess capacity to mitigate against any failure, so the cloud offers the possibility of managing this more efficiently.
Cloud-based providers are already used for storage of content, particularly that which takes up a lot of bandwidth such as pictures, said Wiseman.
But he said it was testing the capabilities of the cloud to enable it to move non-sensitive data storage to be physically closer to the end consumer, thereby increasing speeds. This approach is known as Organic Server Management.
“Getting the data over there would be a challenge, getting it over fast enough is not currently possible,” said Wiseman.
“But in five or 10 years’ time, I see the cloud providing what we need. We won’t be thinking about hardware, about execution units, it will be almost like trading environments.
“We will shop around for the best price for the storage we need with various cloud providers.
“To make this a reality the first thing we must do is make sure our systems are secure. What we need for this to work are much faster and lower cost networks, and low-cost storage.”
Wiseman said currently global networks have a bandwidth limit of 55TB (a trillion bytes). As a company, Sabre has nine petabytes (a million billion bytes) of storage.
He quoted legendary science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke to explain how people today perceive the capabilities of future technology. He said: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Advances in technology mean storage costs have crashed. The cost of storing a gigabyte of data is 3.5 cents today compared with $3 million in 1980.
And better is to come with scientists working on new forms of subatomic storage allowing 500TB of data to be stored per square inch.
This ‘spintronics’ technology, based on the spinning of electrons within atoms, is expected to be commercially available in four to six years.
Harvard University recently announced it was able to store 700TB of data on a single gram of DNA.
These forms of solid-state devices promise hugely stable storage because they do not rely on any moving parts such as spinning disks. Storage on DNA won’t be fast but will be very reliable.
Wiseman said this capability will allow Sabre to put its customers more in control of how they use its systems – configuring systems ,rather than code new ones, and using API data links.
“We are moving away from having to create new code by orchestrating existing code and allowing people to change the rules,” he said.
For the end customer, the traveller, this promises a much more all-encompassing experience with airlines, for instance, not only offering mobile check-in but a fully personalised service on all channels.
For example, when a frequent flyer enters an airport and opens his trip planning or airline app it should recognise him, pull in all his trip history and customer profile.
If that traveller has had a problem, such as lost luggage, he can be sent an immediate apology email, and the next time he checks in he will automatically be offered a free upgrade or lounge access.
Sabre’s travel management app TripCase will one day offer “micro-content” including restaurant and tours that people can do while in the destination creating revenue-raising opportunities.
Wiseman’s vision is of the “perfect booking engine”, which knows the customer buying history and preferences before they make any request and suggests travel opportunities without being asked.
Near Field Communication will allow check-in via a simple tap on a mobile phone and eventually replace customers’ wallets and even passports, while fare forecasts will advise people when to book.
Other advances slated for 2013 include multiple destination search, shopping by price or arrival rather than departure time and an expanded calendar offering plus or minus 15-day search results.
“The limit is the amount of data you can get access to. Big Data will start to replace customer relationship databases,” said Wiseman. “The challenge we set our developers and designers is, if everything was free, what would you do?”