Orbitz gets up and running fast with open source

Open source tools allow travel site to keep pace with well-funded competitors

When Orbitz launched its online travel site in June 2001, it had two well-entrenched competitors: Travelocity and Expedia. Orbitz's goal was to offer something better, quickly.

"We had no time for the RFP stage," says Chuck Clark, the company's director of platform architecture. So Orbitz turned to open source -- lots of open source, including Apache Web servers, JBoss application servers, various Jakarta tools for Java (such as XML parsers), Python for site operations, JUnit for code testing, and the Apache Struts development framework, to name a few examples.

"We run a site that needs to be up all the time, so it's important for us to have access to the source code if there is a problem," Clark says. "Open source has been critical to the success of Orbitz."

Leon Chism, the company's chief Internet architect, agrees. "Some of our competitors have more developers than we have employees," he says. "I'll take Google and source code for support over someone who answers [a vendor's] phone at 3 a.m."

According to Clark, access to source code allows his company's in-house developers to collaborate more effectively with vendors and to take advantage of the latest features of their tools. "When we work with JBoss, we can talk to their developer and get into the nitty-gritty because we can see what they can see," Clark explains. "We've got people who are lead committers [in open source projects], so they know the details of the implementation and how there's a great feature that Orbitz can use for x, y, or z." 

"You get a real win if you take advantage of that knowledge," Chism says. "Our developers don't have just one tool in their toolbox. They assess the landscape and choose the right tool for the job. We control our own destiny."

Orbitz also wanted to be able to grow flexibly, adding capability as it was needed, rather than make a huge upgrade investment and wait for traffic to catch up. By working with open source tools, Orbitz found it could add as little as one server at a time.

"Open source is designed to work in the small, not just in the large," Chism says, "so you can scale in more finely tuned increments."

Clark expects to see more open source tools enter Orbitz's technology chest. For example, Orbitz does not currently use the MySQL database for anything transactional, relying instead on an Oracle database on Sun Solaris hardware to handle the mission-critical customer transactions. But Clark expects increasingly to rely on MySQL in other systems, now that it has matured and gained some transactional capabilities.

Over the long term, Clark also expects to adopt open source applications as they mature. "It's no longer the enterprise software vendors that come up [in RFPs]," he notes. "We see open source apps starting to come of age; it's no longer just the infrastructure."

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