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Confused by ‘the cloud’? Here’s the lowdown on new storage tech

March 16, 2014

(Published in TTG – 13.03.14)

 

 

Cloud company Sire’s Russell Cook talks to Matthew Parsons about the information storage challenges faced by travel firms

“Cloud can be a big bill,” says Sire’s Russell Cook. With the move towards online, it’s understandable costs can rise as travel sellers look to get the most out of their hordes of valuable customer data.

It’s all part of the emergence of big data, as travel companies seek to leverage their own data to gain an edge over competitors.

However, Cook, managing director of Sire, warns that many travel sellers are taking risks with how they store their data – from technical reliability to privacy laws and beyond.

Cloud storage companies use technology both to compress data and to enable fast, flexible data processing.

During a busy period, online travel agents may need to handle a shift from receiving 20,000 website visitors per day to 200,000, and so would call upon cloud companies to help store and process extra information.

Yet Cook argues many companies simply opt for standard cloud packages and fail to factor in flexibility.

“A lot of companies are paying low costs, but you have to invest,” he says. “We ask what the client needs – what does the business need?”

On the data trail

One of Sire’s travel customers is Trailfinders, which as it grows seeks ever-faster access to customer records and supporting documentation.

“Trailfinders has its own private cloud, as they wanted scalability – for example, to cope with peaks in bookings,” Cook says.

“Trailfinders wanted scalability – for example, to cope with peaks in bookings.”

“From March to May, there’s a big demand on customer service teams, so agents need to bring up data quickly, or the website needs to load quickly. Then after that, they scale back their private cloud.”

The reason for extra storage ultimately comes down to user experience, he argues.

“It’s about shaving off a few seconds here and there. A consultant should not be saying, ‘Please wait a few moments for the page to load.’ It’s not acceptable.

“It comes back to that element of competitiveness. How can six companies have the edge if they are all on the same standard platform?”

The small print

Cook is also urging travel companies to read the T&Cs. “Your data may not be backed up in the way you’d expect,” he says. “Some companies don’t do due diligence.”

Amazon’s cloud storage has reportedly experienced major outages over the past couple of years, taking with it websites such as Foursquare and turntable.fm.

Cook claims many cloud companies have “as is” clauses – so buyers must accept any faults.

As a result, those travel companies are putting their businesses in jeopardy.

“Cover it with insurance, or accept the risk, but you should consider cloud storage in the same way you would health and safety,” he says.

As well as performance and reliability, privacy is another hot topic, partly because of the controversy surrounding the US’s National Security Agency’s (NSA) methods of data collection.

When it comes to storing data, sovereignty rules apply, meaning data is subject to the laws of the country in which it is stored.

“Your data may not be backed up in the way you’d expect. Some companies don’t do due diligence.”

Cook argues companies must be wary about storing data in the US, as the government can access data far more easily there than in the UK, where any requests for data must come from a court order.

In the US, the 2001 Patriot Act and the 2008 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act gives intelligence agencies the power to carry out mass information gathering.

“OTAs should be aware of this, as a country’s government may want information on a person’s travelling data. This could affect the company.

“However, governments tend to look at data from a more statistical perspective. When it’s statistical, that’s reasonable,” Cook adds.

Meanwhile, cloud companies that operate in countries outside the EU (and therefore outside of the EU’s Safe Harbour data protection scheme) may be at a higher risk of having information leaked, or worse be affected by criminal activity.

Such is the concern over data security that telecommunications provider Swisscom is reportedly designing a new “Swiss Cloud” to offer secure storage.

Cook, who exhibited at last month’s Travel Technology Europe exhibition, says Sire is targeting companies of at least 100 people, from OTAs to airlines. But he adds that Sire is also for “people who want to know who’s looking after their data”.

If big data really is the next big thing in travel selling, surely it’s worth that little bit extra to know who’s looking after what is potentially your biggest asset.

Data as a safety tool

As well as enhancing customer experience, today cloud technology plays a key part in holidaymakers’ safety.

Sire works with Flight Data People on its retrieval of data from aircraft black boxes. Quick-access recordings are important, and Cook says it’s wrong to think of black boxes as useful only after an incident.

“After flights, safety officers look at black boxes, and talk to pilots. They may find a pilot was flying too fast, and sometimes there can be retraining issues. They can translate that data back to something useful.”

Another use is storing large amounts of historic data in the cloud: “If a flight was particularly rough, a passenger could attempt to sue that airline, complaining they had been traumatised by the experience a year after.

However, an airline could analyse the data, overlay with weather data, and discover it was simply a case of bad weather.”

Flight Data People’s flight data monitoring service was developed by British Airways 40 years ago and it continues to count the airline as one of its customers.

In the future, Cook believes the next step to ensure greater airport operation safety will involve planes, vehicles, luggage, and so on, all streaming live data.

“You can make sure every aspect of your holiday is safe,” he says. “You should be able to look at data intelligently and see trends. An accident is just a break in
the chain.”

Gatwick airport, meanwhile, is to move its entire business to a cloud solution over the next three years, reducing its server count from more than 800 down to 250, to save costs and offer faster analysis – for example, when looking at who is on a plane, where they are going to, or which meals need to be served.

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