Terracotta Helping Hotelier Build Individualized Services

May 29, 2009 (07:05 AM EDT)

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Booking your next hotel room may be a very personalized experience indeed.

InterContinental Hotels Group, parent company to the chain that includes Holiday Inns, Crowne Plazas, and InterContinental hotels, this week said it has implemented Terracotta's application scaling system to speed up its room reservation system.

Terracotta enables U.K.-based InterContinental to process room reservations more efficiently at its three data centers in Alpharetta, Ga., Beltsville, Md., and San Jose, Calif. But it's not so much what Terracotta is doing for the hotel group after its first eight months of operation that counts, says Bill Peer, chief enterprise architect for the group.

"We want to synchronize our Java Virtual Machines [running the same application] in a distributed way. There's where Terracotta comes in. ... We could create new services based on transient data," he said in a recent interview.

Terracotta is a system for managing the software objects and any related data needed by a Java application outside the database. Terracotta takes advantage of Java language's own memory management capabilities to generate a shared pool of random access memory across a group of servers on a network. It manages both the memory pool and the application's Java VMs so that data can be called out of the database once and used by many Java VMs.

That approach lets the open source Terracotta system function as middleware between the database and the application, allowing the application to run in different locations but share the needed data across all instances. It helps enterprises avoid installing additional database systems to supply data to distributed systems, Peer said.

InterContinental Hotels considered Oracle's Coherence, a memory management system for a server cluster, but opted for Terracotta instead. IBM, Gemstone Systems, and Gigaspaces also offer in-memory data-sharing systems.

"With Terracotta, the application developer can be naive about where the data is located or how it's going to be synchronized," said Peer. The Terracotta system combined with the Java VMs will keep the data synchronized across all instances of the running application.

Currently, InterContinental mainly functions around big, centralized databases, both IBM's DB2 and Oracle's, to capture all essential data associated with the operation of 4,000 hotels. But for a manager, concierge or other non-database administrator to get information out of the database is a daunting task. Peer thinks a new era is coming where daily operational data, some of which won't be stored in the centralized databases, will become available to hotel managers.

"We could use Terracotta to share information between hotels," he suggested. Minutia, such as what kind of refrigerated drink a frequent traveler likes or what candy he prefers to find on his pillow, can't be shared easily today between hotels. If a guest is moving from one InterContinental unit to another, that information could make his next stop more personalized and enjoyable, Peer said.

"That information already exists, but it's hard to tap. With this approach, transient data is more visible. We could create more services based on transient data. 'This incoming guest likes these amenities.' We could give one a spa pass, another a drink promotion," he said.

InterContinental as a $20 billion-a-year hotel chain also has a large loyalty rewards plan, the Priority Club, 42 million strong -- "the largest hospitality club in the world," he said. Catering to the individual needs of such a frequent-traveler club could strengthen bonds between InterContinental and its customers but it would depend on both stored information and recently acquired, transient information based on recent stops.

"That's part of our whole approach. Transient information will be made available between hotels," said Peer.

At this point, if there's a festival or community parade somewhere in Atlanta, Peer has no way of having the hotel aware of the event spread the information across the concierges at the 40 InterContinental properties in the Atlanta metro area. Peer sees the day when local information becomes a shared resource as well as data in big, central databases.

While the core system is open source code, enhanced versions are sold as $5,000 to $12,000 annual subscriptions, Terracotta officials said.

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