Red Hat Linux, Oracle apps travel in style

Who knew the Penguin loved to travel? MLT Vacations, a Minneapolis, Minn.-based travel agency did. The company managed to save a cool million with the help of Linux and Oracle apps in a decidedly chilly travel environment.

Who knew penguins loved to travel? And who would have known they did it with Oracle applications on board?

We conducted a proof of concept that showed we could save a lot of money [with Linux] over a four to five year period.
Michael Kress
director of enterprise technology servicesMLT Vacations Inc.

Over the past four years, the economic climate has been less than hospitable to the idea of traveling to exotic locales, sunning oneself on the sandy beaches of the Caribbean, and sipping margaritas while the cares of cubicle life were left back at the office.

The decidedly cool climate has had travel agency executives scratching their heads and looking for ways to cut costs while keeping their struggling operations afloat.

One such agency was MLT Vacations Inc., a Minneapolis, Minn.-based provider of charted and scheduled tour packages to over one million people annually. Like much of the industry, MLT had been struggling as a result of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the general apprehension towards travel that followed.

As the search for savings went on, MLT executives eventually found themselves examining applications from Linux vendor Red Hat and database management software (DBMS) and business applications vendor Oracle Corp.

"We were looking for a more cost-effective way of doing business," said Michael Kress, the director of enterprise technology services at MLT. "Over the last few years travel has suffered greatly, so we were looking for a way to contain or reduce our costs."

Before MLT started off on a route that would end with open source driving their mission critical processes, the company's 80-person strong IT department ran a combination of Oracle 8i and Sun Microsystems' Solaris 8 operating system on 10 to 15 servers. After doing some initial research, Kress said, MLT could not ignore the savings that Linux provided.

"From what we had read, Linux was gaining a level of stability, reliability and operational capacity that was similar to midrange and large systems vendors' offerings," Kress said. "We conducted a proof of concept that showed we could save a lot of money [with Linux] over a four to five year period."

Kress said MLT also evaluated other offerings from Oracle, including Real Applications Clusters (RAC) technology that would allow servers to be added or removed from the system quickly and easily; as well as distributed across disparate locations to provide a fault tolerant architecture.

This environment also enabled the MLT Web site, reservation systems and applications to function during routine maintenance or in the event that problems developed with a specific server.

By replacing proprietary Unix servers with IBM servers running Oracle Database and Oracle Real Application Clusters on Red Hat Enterprise Linux, MLT was able to improve system performance while decreasing technology costs. The move is expected to save the company about $1 million over the next five years, Kress said.

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Chris Corona, the manager of system services at MLT Vacations, said the Solaris-to-Linux and Oracle 8i to 9i migration process was extremely time consuming.

"We had to update a lot of the applications as well as the database, and there was definitely some work involved with that," Corona said. "At the base of it, we consolidated from 8i multiple single node servers to a 9i clustered environment."

Corona said that several customized tool sets also had to be integrated into the new clustered environment. The MLT Vacations IT shop's inexperience with moving their file systems from Solaris 8 to Red Hat Linux also posed a challenge.

"It turned out not to be exceptionally hard, but very time consuming," Kress said, adding that the entire migration process began in the fall of 2003 with the earliest conceptual stages, and finally was applied to the revenue generating databases last December.

Performance trumps downtime

Before the migration, Corona said, MLT had its core applications written for a single node application server and most of the company's reservation system resided on a single database.

"If that [application server] went down we had to replace the part immediately – if we had the hardware on hand – and even then we were looking at four hours of downtime," Corona said. "Now if a node in the cluster goes down it's just a matter of restarting the database and one to two hours of downtime."

As a testament to the reliability they had expected from Linux as a result of their research, Kress said that the new environment hasn't failed once since going online in December 2004. In fact, he said, there has been "minimal" tuning during live production, and that was to be expected.

Also notable, Kress said, were the performance increases that resulted from moving from Sun SPARC PCUs to a 3 gigahertz Intel CPU. This increase was especially welcomed by Kress, who said he had some initial concerns about the reliability of the Intel platform when compared to the "tried and true" SPARC platform.

The success of the Intel system, coupled with Oracle and Red Hat applications, has led Kress' development team to entertain the idea of replacing the MLT front end servers with Linux if future research shows that there is a better platform out there than the HP Alpha they run today.

"We're going to take a hard look this year; maybe go with a different environment, a more open environment that might allow us to have the opportunity to have a broader array in terms of tool and languages," Kress said.

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