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Orbitz finds Linux a good travel companion

Michael S. Mimoso, Editorial Director

Orbitz flies with Linux.

Always has, and if you believe the online travel agency's chief Internet architect, Leon Chism, it always will.

Recently, Orbitz deepened its commitment to the operating system by replacing its Sun Solaris-based application servers with Linux boxes.

"We're doing it at a 10x cost reduction and a 2x performance boost," Chism said.

Chicago-based Orbitz uses Linux not only because it saves the company money, but because it gives Orbitz a competitive advantage over other online agents, like Travelocity and Expedia, Chism said.

"We've always had Linux in our production environment -- from the start," Chism said. "We run Apache on Linux servers, and the low-fare search engine software that takes your input online is Linux software."

Last fall, with its Solaris application server leases about to expire, Chism was looking at renewing -- at a $250,000 price tag -- new Sun Enterprise 4500 SPARC servers or moving to open-source. Eventually, Chism settled on BEA Systems Inc.'s WebLogic for Orbitz's servlet engine running on Red Hat. Sun, in the meantime, was not completely exorcised from the Orbitz environment. Chism said Orbitz uses Sun hardware for its database.

"The good side of using Linux is having the source code and the level of self determination that goes along with it," Chism said. "If you're having a problem and the vendor blames the operating system, you can go back and find out."

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Linux's stability and reliability are also attractive to Orbitz, which demands uptime.

"When we made the switch to Linux, we saw a 2x performance improvement based on the specs of the Intel chip architecture and the effects of the operating system," Chism said.

Orbitz's value proposition is its return of low fares for flights, hotels and car rentals from its search engine. To get those results, Chism said, Orbitz does not accept payment for favorable search engine returns from airline carriers. In turn, however, that means less revenue for Orbitz, and the approach requires decision makers to keep costs manageable.

"Orbitz uses a ground-up decision-making process. We compete against companies that have more developers than we do. We have to be especially nimble and quick with technology decisions," Chism said. "One way we do that is ask our technology organizations about the software we should be using. The guys in the trenches fight the battles. They know what works better than someone who is not on the front line."

In fact, most of Orbitz's administrators run Linux at home, or have used it previously in school or in a development environment. In short, there's little hesitancy about Linux at Orbitz, which, according to uniquevisitor.com, is the second most visited site on the Web.

As in any production environment, things don't always go smoothly. Chism recalled an instance when the application search was stressing the Linux kernel. "The virtual memory manager did not play well with our application," he said.

With support a click away on the Web, Chism cannot say enough about the "level of self-determination" Linux offers.

"With open-source software like Linux, and other software and development tools, we can find solutions to problems ourselves," Chism said. "We've never gone to Google and not found some solution or workaround, or found a developer who is willing to help.

"If you're staffed to paddle your own canoe, then Linux is the way to go."

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