“For us, stability and scalability are the key aspects of open source platforms”

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Mani Ganeshan,
Mani Ganeshan, global head of engineering, travel distribution and centre head at Amadeus Labs

‘Open source is at the heart of what we do.’ — this is what Amadeus, a global technology provider for the travel industry, says on its website. Rahul Chopra and Vaishali Yadav of EFY Group recently interacted with Mani Ganeshan, global head of engineering, travel distribution and centre head at Amadeus Labs, to understand why open source is important for the company, and what has been done to move in this direction. Ganeshan also talked about the hiring trends and how emerging technologies have led to interesting use cases in the travel industry. Read on to know more…

Q. Could you briefly give some background about Amadeus and its presence in India?

A. Amadeus is the world’s largest technology provider for the travel industry. We’re a 37-year-old company, headquartered in Madrid and have more than 19,000 employees working in various offices worldwide. We’ve developed the technology on which the travel industry transacts its business, be it the sale of tickets for airlines, room nights, car rentals, and so on. We have a vast network of travel agencies on our platform.

Further, we facilitate the inventory being sold to travellers like you and me. And this is one of our largest verticals. We have a second vertical made up of IT business for airlines, hotel chains, car rental companies, and so on. We also play in adjacent businesses like payments for the travel industry, and the IT for airports. So, Amadeus has the solutions for almost everything related to the travel life cycle and its several stages.

The 11-year-old Bengaluru centre is our second largest engineering and R&D centre worldwide. Here, we have over 3000 engineers innovating on several aspects of our platform. And so, we cater to solutions not only for the global travel ecosystem but also act as the engineering hub for the APAC region, based in India.

Q. I want to understand how, despite several startups coming in, Amadeus has been able to survive and thrive in the terminals of almost all travel agents.

A. We are a SaaS platform provider, and our primary and sole customer base is our network of businesses present in the travel industry. So we are a B2B player, or rather, a B2B2C player where we make sure that using our technology and platform, travel providers like the airlines, the hotel chains, the car rental companies, and the travel agencies make it a better experience for travellers. I would say that we provide the backbone. We are not a B2C player like the new dot coms coming in. In the background, the Amadeus platform is being used for every second traveller’s journey.

Q. Does that mean that you partner with them rather than them entering into your space?

A. Absolutely, we facilitate online travel agencies, like MakeMyTrip, Expedia, etc, to have more innovative solutions, and thereby cater to the more personalised needs of travellers. While the transaction happens on the online travel agency’s portal, in the background, it’s Amadeus.

Q. Have none of them ever attempted to come to the B2B side also?

A. For sure, the industry is evolving into a more open platform. It is happening because all the players in the travel space understand that there is a lot of friction here. We understand that the industry works on a complex network. You could be sitting in Delhi booking a ticket between Dallas and Johannesburg, using a Bengaluru-based online travel agency, a US-based payment provider, and two different airlines. And this is a common scenario in the travel industry!

Each player is now trying to find out how to stand apart from the others. So, the question is, how do you make the service a lot more personalised? How does an airline or a travel agency profile its customers, i.e., travellers, better? That’s why the industry is evolving into a more open space.

And there are more and more players coming in including the larger hyper scalars and the e-commerce players, because travel is such a wide industry and a basic need. More players coming in necessitates an open platform. And that’s the responsibility we carry as a large technology player in the industry—to open up the platform so that more players can come in to create innovative solutions for travellers, and reduce any friction as they flow through.

Q. Am I correct to understand that the more the B2C players come into the industry, the better it is for Amadeus? Because they are your customers in a way and, through them, you are able to reach out to even more customers.

A. You’re absolutely right. The more players that are innovating in the travel industry, the better the travellers’ experience gets. We have several niche players who solve a point problem for the travel industry. For example, there are startups that use IoT and focus on tracking the baggage in an airport and keeping a traveller informed. As we have our own solutions for ground handlers, we ask, can we partner with one of these startups and make a better solution for travellers? In the end, we bring these point solutions to life and make the overall journey smoother on the tech front.

Q. How would you define the word ‘open platform’? Is it different from ‘open source’? Please shed some light on that.

A. What we have in Amadeus is a two-sided model. Let me give an example of air travel. What are the airlines looking for? All of them have an inventory of airline seats to sell, and they want to reach out to as many travellers in the world as possible. They do that through a network of travel sellers, who are a part of brick-and-mortar or online travel agencies.

When I say the more open the platform, the better—it’s for all the players. It’s a two-sided model. Let’s say there are more travel agencies on the platform. It obviously increases the reach of travel providers and vice versa. The travel sellers are also running their own businesses and want to cater to their own set of clientele. The more the airlines, hotel chains and car rental companies are on the platform, the more they can create a comprehensive package for travellers, making travel more interconnected and seamless. That’s what I mean when I emphasise the need for an open industry. Every player sees a benefit in being a participant in an open platform, which goes way beyond even open source.

Q. How and at what level is Amadeus using open source?

A. We leverage open source technologies quite significantly because again, in this entire complex and interconnected network, speed, agility, and innovation are the key essence to success for any of the players, including Amadeus, who provides the backbone. Now, if you look at the above said parameters, we are much better off using software that has been developed in an open community rather than trying to have our own proprietary system. That’s why we are a big believer in open source and leverage several open source technologies on our platform.

And the good thing is that, now, a lot of these open source platforms are getting more sophisticated and wider in their reach. So, we benefit from that like any other player, and then we leverage these open source software in a responsible way to ensure security and privacy. That’s how we play in the open source world.

Q. Where all are you using open source? Are there any broad packages or platforms that Amadeus is a big user of?

A. We have been running our own private cloud in our data centre ever since the company was created. And we are a pioneer in running a SaaS-based platform to scale because we started doing this 37 years back, and we now run this entire platform in a virtualised setup.

So, we use Red Hat, OpenShift and OpenStack extensively. We are one of the premier partners for Red Hat, and we contribute a lot to the evolution of the Red Hat, OpenShift, Kubernetes, and OpenStack platforms. Then, we provide a lot of frameworks on the e-commerce side, which are wide-level products on which travel agencies and airline websites function. For that, we use many open source UI frameworks like Angular and React.

We even created our own proprietary framework, way back in 2009, and then made it open source. It was called ARIA templates (Amadeus Rich Internet Applications). Now, it’s actively getting enhanced by the wider developer community. So we have open source frameworks.
We use a lot of Apache Kafka for streaming because it’s a volume-intensive platform that we deal with. We use Hadoop Spark, etc, on the data platform that we have created, for gaining insights into the travel industry. So, I would say that open source goes across many spectrums of the travel industry as well as software engineering.

Q. How does your team evaluate which ones to bet upon? Do you carry out proof-of-concepts (PoCs) or some studies? Or is the decision just based on Gartner quadrants?

A. It’s a mix of all of that. Of course, we constantly scout to see how the open source community is evolving. Now, more sophisticated open source platforms are coming in. We do our own PoCs once we identify and narrow some of these. And, of course, we participate in industry studies also.

But the key and fundamental aspect we look for is the platform’s stability and readiness to scale. Being a large platform with high availability and intensity of transactions, it’s extremely important for our software to stand the test of volume, resilience and robustness.

So, we do experiment a lot and our global developer community is working to bring more and more open source into the Amadeus platform. We are extremely careful to make sure that it scales successfully because once we expose that and the entire industry—some 1000 airlines, 300,000 travel agencies, 100,000 hotel properties among others—starts using it, it better behave.

Q. Is there a centre of excellence or some team that looks after this whole domain of open source at Amadeus?

A. We have what we call a DevRel engineering team within the organisation. This is a transversal team that looks at making life better for our engineers and making them more productive. So when any of our engineers find some of these open source libraries or platforms that are available, they eventually funnel them into this DevRel community. It’s made up of architects and principal engineers, and we operate it in an inner source kind of model. Once the software is identified, it goes to this community for evaluation, thus enabling the developer network to do PoCs and then come back to the community to report its findings.

The architecture community takes the final call to release it for wider use in two ways — one is just for our engineering community, and the second is for wider production use. The testing rigour is a lot more for the latter, because it’s developed for general availability. We need our IP and legal teams to come in, and make sure that we are not violating any patents, etc. If it’s for production use, then we bring other departments of the company into the assessment process.

Q. So, essentially, the trigger is from your own developer community, which identifies these platforms, right?

A. If there are startups that are interested in participating in the Amadeus community and exposing their engineering or functional capabilities to the wider travel industry, then we do have forums for that too. We have a platform called Amadeus Next, which constantly looks at onboarding more startups to use the Amadeus API and Amadeus Sandbox, so that they can play around and create more capabilities for the travel industry. Once it gets more sophisticated, we have our Ventures team driven by the Madrid headquarters, which looks at the network of startups to invest in.

Q. Is there an annual cohort or any other system?

A. Typically, it’s a system that is up and running and does not operate in a cohort mode. Startups can make a pitch and we evaluate if they should be connected to our customer base—the airlines, the hotel chains and so on. If there is an appetite, we onboard them and make the connections for the startups to use the Amadeus platform, the APIs, and the sandbox to play in and connect to our customer base.

Q. Can you share any success story of a startup, Indian or global, which has gone through this process and then partnered with you?

A. The partnership between Amadeus and Airportr is a great example of how we support startups in their journey to bring innovative solutions to the travel industry. By partnering with Airportr, a London-based startup that offers luggage pickup and delivery services for air travellers, Amadeus was able to integrate their technology into Amadeus’ booking and check-in system, making it possible for passengers to book Airportr’s services at the same time they book their flight.

Through this partnership, Airportr got access to our extensive network of travel industry experts, which helped it to refine its product and expand its reach. Also, our expertise helped it to seamlessly integrate its solution into the booking and check-in process, making it easier for travellers to take advantage of Airportr’s services.

Q. Any major platforms other than Kubernetes and the ARIA framework in which Amadeus is an aggressive contributor or driver of the forum, or is leading the communities?

A. We have partnered with Red Hat for OpenStack and OpenShift. Recently, we have also partnered with the Green Software Foundation, which is a foundation created by companies like Accenture, GitHub, Microsoft and ThoughtWorks. The spirit of this foundation is to make sure that all the software is developed in a sustainable way, leaving a minimal carbon footprint in the technology industry. Amadeus is an active participant along with these founding members.

Q. Is IoT also an area of interest for Amadeus and is any work happening there?

A. There are some use cases of IoT, like that of baggage, or where we try to map an airport so that there can be a seamless guiding of passengers to gates. There are solutions that we are working on and experimenting with, like using your mobile phone as a key for the hotel. NFC communication and some level of IoT come into play there too.

Q. And what is your take on the metaverse?

A. A lot of experimentation! It’s a cool toy that many companies are experimenting with. We, in the travel industry, are experimenting to see how the metaverse can probably give a sneak peek of the travel experience before the actual travel. Though we are experimenting, large industry-scale use is yet to happen.

The metaverse is at a stage where we need to wait and watch how it gains traction beyond office productivity into production-grade use. There are some areas where it naturally fits in, like the training of pilots. This is an intense and time-consuming process, and we expect the metaverse to come in and accelerate it. But, ultimately, time will tell.

Q. How about artificial intelligence? Are there any use cases being developed? Or any interesting projects that you can share with us?

A. Everyone wants to know about ChatGPT these days. So yes, we do leverage AI technologies quite intensely within the Amadeus platform. We have some use cases, like how to search the various options that you have to reach from source to destination. If you put London and New York as your source and destination, there could be many options for a traveller. Now, the aim is to use AI and ML techniques to profile the traveller better so that you provide extremely pointed, let’s say, 10 options with a high likelihood that the traveller will pick one of them, rather than providing 200 options where the traveller gets lost and doesn’t book at all.

We also leverage AI/ML techniques to learn from past travel patterns, demographics, seasonality patterns, and so on to provide more custom solutions. As one example, we are leveraging AI to see how we can troubleshoot the production platform better so that even before a customer reports a problem, we can sense it ourselves and take corrective action.
We are leveraging AI solutions on our customer helpdesk also, to see how quickly we can scan our database of tickets when a customer faces a challenge, so that even before an engineer is asked to get involved, we have provided a near-final solution to one of our customer agents.

Q. Any plans to set up something like the government of India’s DigiLocker?

A. There are many innovations going on, some of which are now production grade. We are investing heavily in using biometrics—be it your fingerprint or facial recognition—as your identity so as to enable travelling through an airport without having to show a single piece of paper including your passport. Our solutions are in the pilot stage at the Delhi, Hyderabad and Goa international airports.

There are innovations parallel to the DigiLocker that are happening. During the pandemic, almost all travellers were concerned if it was safe to travel through airports, what were the regulations prevalent in destination cities/areas, and how to find a healthcare network in case some testing was needed. So, Amadeus created a safe travel ecosystem for a traveller, a kind of a document repository system, creating a network of healthcare providers, government regulations and travel players, so that the traveller felt confident to come out and start travelling. It has seen significant uptake in the travel industry over the last two years, and multiple airlines are getting millions of documents processed on this platform.

Q. That brings me to the pandemic. How did you handle that period? And what was your message to your team during those tough days?

A. There is no beating around the bush there. It was a very, very tough time for the entire industry when, in March 2020, world travel almost came to a standstill. Because we run such a large travel platform for the industry, we have seen disruptions in different pockets or some regions. The SARS virus, bird flu, etc, had disrupted travelling in some areas of the world in the past, but world travel still used to happen.

This was perhaps the first case where the entire travel ecosystem came to a standstill worldwide. It did impact our entire customer base. It impacted Amadeus significantly, with a sharp dip in our revenues worldwide, maybe the sharpest ever.

But there was a strong resolve in our executives and in the leadership that if this industry has to recover, it is the technology that is going to make a difference by creating a safe ecosystem that connects the players a lot better and thereby, brings the confidence back into the industry. And sure enough, that’s exactly what happened. We knew that it was the technology that would keep the industry going. And that’s one way we found to motivate our engineers to innovate. We still believe that the need for technology is almost the highest ever in the industry now.

I’m sure you’re seeing that now travel has recovered almost to pre-pandemic levels, or even crossed that level in some areas. We are still continuing that impetus of innovation in the industry.

Q. What is your message to engineering students or even to those who are working professionally, about building a skillset in the open source space?

A. I would say this is an absolutely great time to be in the technology industry. Because 20 years back, open source was not as sophisticated and proprietary software was ruling the roost. I think we are now reaching a level of maturity in this industry where there is a balance between proprietary packaged software and open source. I believe the use of open source is growing at a double-digit CAGR of around 15-16% year-on-year.

This is the time to hone our skills and make sure that we stay relevant by participating in the open source wave that the world is in. And again, companies like Amadeus, which run large technology centres, are responsible and take accountability to contribute back to this community that we are benefiting a lot from. So, we motivate our engineers to inner source that software so that other engineers within the company benefit from the technology that they developed, and collectively expose that to the travel industry and thereby contribute back.

Q. How do you recognise contributions by Amadeus engineers giving back to the community? Is there any kind of motivation, reward or recognition system?

A. We have a well-recognised rewards and recognition framework within the company. We have a patent wall in our offices where you will see all the IPs that have been generated by the engineers in our organisation. We showcase and promote that. And there is also financial remuneration that we provide to our engineers when they file a patent, or when they log a disclosure and know how. We have a central team that helps them create the paperwork for the patent, and so on. The open source contributions that our engineers make are also a part of that.

Q. Is there a data centre in India also? How are your data centres deployed across the globe?

A. Our primary data centre is in Germany, in the south of Munich, but now, we have declared that we are on a public cloud transformation within the company. We have partnered with Microsoft and at this point, the transformation is on. We are looking to increase the payload that we are reaching into Microsoft Azure, and now that the partnership is set and is in motion, eventually, the reach of the platform will be worldwide.

And while the initial data centres we are setting up are going to be in Europe on Microsoft, eventually, we will see this reaching worldwide including India.

Q. Is there any law in India that requires you to gradually shift the data here? Is there any timeline, etc, related to it?

A. Data sovereignty, of course, is a big challenge in the world. More and more governments are expecting data to get processed within their geographical boundaries. This was one of the key objectives we had when we partnered with Microsoft.

While there is no specific rule as such, the Indian government of course is doing its own due diligence around data privacy and data protection acts, etc. We believe that our partnership with Microsoft will automatically help us take care of the challenges.

Q. Can you give us a broad outline as to what are the different roles at the Bengaluru centre?

A. We set up the Bengaluru centre in 2012. And every year, we have been scaling the centre, getting deeper and deeper into the complex domain of travel. Our engineers are working on critical programs within the company. And so, primarily, it’s a technology centre. Out of the 3000-odd engineers, around 65% are actually writing code, testing software, requirements, specifications, and so on.

Then we have a large vertical to manage and successfully run the platform after the software is ready for deployment. The platform that we run is SaaS-based and has many players and a worldwide customer base. It deals with extremely high volumes, even to the tune of 30,000-40,000 transactions a second. So, its software needs to function in high availability mode, even to a tune of 99.9999% availability uptime. So we have a large team here, that works with our other engineering centre to make sure that the platform availability is at the highest level.

We do have other smaller teams that are into providing IT helpdesk and support services for our customers. The rest is customer support and corporate functions. Of course, we have a large corporate team. We have a security operation centre in Bengaluru, which manages to keep our platform secure from day-to-day threats. So, we have a security operations centre (SOC) here that protects the Amadeus platform worldwide.

Q. Are you hiring as of now? What is the current status of the resignation wave?

A. We do acknowledge that, in the technology industry, there is some turbulence going on. Different companies are looking at their investment strategies, etc. We are in an industry that is in recovery mode. And as I mentioned earlier, the need for innovation in this industry is at its highest. So, Amadeus continues to invest in the technology platform to transform the industry. We recently expanded to a new office in Pune, to tap into the rich talent that the market offers. Currently, we are looking to fill more than 100 roles by next year at the centre.

Q. Does it help the job applicants at Amadeus to have an open source contribution? How do the engineering leaders make sure that the keywords on their resumes have some real weight?

A. Oh, absolutely. When we are searching for engineers and talents, I’d say not only open source but we see if they have that technological, geeky frame of mind. Other things come out during the discussions and interviews. We have partners who constantly scout open source platforms to see the contributions. There are sophisticated hiring portals that have already done this kind of profiling when they source a candidate for us.

Q. Any technologies that you would suggest to professionals, especially developers, to hone their skills on, and some which are now of the past and they may forget about?

A. I never hazard the risk to say any technology is in the past. Because history tells us that any technology that gets developed, eventually lasts a long time. For example, you would think that mainframes are legacy as they were created 40-50 years back, and now, hardly anyone uses mainframes. But, if you do a survey in the industry, I’m sure there are many sectors that are still on the mainframes. The travel industry is on mainframes in many aspects. Amadeus is one of the first technology providers in the travel industry that got off mainframes and ran fully on open source mainframe systems. But there are many travel providers who are still running mainframes in their data centres. So, I never hazard the risk to say that any software has become redundant. For example, C++ still remains very popular and we leverage it vigorously.

But if you look to the future, Python is getting popular; streaming software like Kafka and sophisticated UI frameworks like React—these are software that we leverage heavily on our platform.

Q. What message would you convey to the open source community at large?

A. Again, we would be happy to welcome more and more engineers into the open source bandwagon and make sure that the solutions that we develop are sophisticated, supportable, secure, and take care of various security considerations across the world. So, the more the merrier. Working in the open source community provides unique opportunities to make a large impact in the technology ecosystem and I would recommend young engineers to pursue it.

 

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