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Travel giant HBX Group ditches 10 years of tech debt with move to open source cloud stack

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett January 31, 2024
Summary:
Shift massively speeds up time to market for new products.

HBX
Paula Felstead

When Hotelbeds decided to rebrand to HBX Group, the company’s technology infrastructure needed a major overhaul first to support the strategy. This saw the business shift from an Oracle database and hybrid cloud to a PostgreSQL open source and cloud-only tech stack. 

The rebrand, which happened last October, was part of HBX Group’s transition from selling beds to full-scale travel technology provider, offering accommodation, experiences and payments services. The crux of the new business strategy is that HBX Group is the gateway to the travel ecosystem for travel agents and tour operators worldwide.

Paula Felstead, Chief Technology & Operations Officer at HBX Group, explains:

The only way we can enable that is to stop being just a bed bank who buys and sells room nights from hotels and distributes them to travel agents, to being connected to everyone and everything, but also to bundle services and provide technological and data services to the travel ecosystem.

This sets us apart from some of our peer group where we work with hotels, we work with tour operators and travel agents, but we're not trying to compete with them. For the end consumer, that's what their job is. Our job is to make them as successful as possible.

But the ecosystem model relies on technology ensuring a smooth delivery of these services. Felstead notes:

There's no point having something that looks great on the outside, but you can't then back it up and deliver it on a day in, day out 24/7 basis.

Needs

Taking into account the firm’s global reach, volume of dataflows, the size of its data analytics capability, plus the number of scans and searches handled on a daily basis, HBX Group needed an infinitely scalable database, a lot more flexibility, and a move away from hybrid cloud. 

Previously, the business was using Google, AWS and on-premise, with an Oracle database. It decided to switch instead to go fully AWS, with open source for its database needs. Felstead explains:

The reason we moved away from Oracle to open source is based around the business plan that HBX has. It's a highly ambitious B2B player in the travel space, but we weren't leveraging the full benefit of being fully cloud and our on-premise capability had not been addressed. That was the major driver, making sure that what we had as our main engine of the business was scalable at the speed and cost that we needed to fit our business ambitions.

Now it’s fully in the cloud, HBX Group is using a lot of the services and capabilities AWS offers, and it also made use of the support and expertise from the cloud provider during the project. However, 80% to 90% of the heavy lifting was done by the in-house team. Felstead says:

The reason we did this in-house is because our main challenge was remediating 10 years of technical debt in about 12 months. You can't bring in hordes of people who don't understand your business or don't understand your current code base and expect them to be successful in a short period of time.

Felstead explained to the HBX Group’s executive committee that the project needed to be done in as short a window as possible to remediate the technical debt and be able to scale. She adds:

That means, from a business perspective, you can't have all of the lovely new functionality you need for 12 months. Do you come along with us on this ride? Luckily for me, they said a resounding yes, and they kept that promise during the 12 months. That enabled us to focus every single man and woman that works in HBX to this mammoth task.

HBX Group is now fully migrated across, running on its brand new PostgreSQL cloud-based tech stack, at a cost of €11 million CapEx. While switching from hybrid/on-premise was something the business knew had to be done if it was going to be successful overall, the complexities were huge. HBX Group had multiple systems, and regularly delivers over 400 services to different clients and partners every day. Each one of those services had to be moved, migrated, tested and then implemented. 

Some of the challenges the firm had during the 12-month project were around the unknowns and undocumented processes. And the people who had written them had long departed the business. Felstead explains:

There was a constant surprise-handling challenge of - wow, we didn't realize that was how it worked, therefore, how do we solve those problems? The 12 months were very much having to adapt, evolve, react and find solutions on a daily basis. It means that you have to have a very tight, flat transformation organization to be able to handle that level of change and complexity.

HBX Group’s new transaction platform, underpinned by an open-source relational database management system, supports unlimited scalability. As well as moving from an Oracle database to a fully cloud tech stack based on PostgreSQL, developers and engineers are using database change management tool Liquibase. 

Liquibase lets users make changes to data structures, indexes and databases through a natural and easy to use scripting capability, according to Felstead. She adds:

As part of developing your new product or service, you can code the data and the structure changes that you need to make. Liquibase will handle that for you. You don't have to have a separate stream just looking at the data and structures.

The new tech platform means HBX Group can more quickly connect to new clients and partners, and deliver products faster to market. It also expects to have less availability downtime or outages, and be more secure and resilient. Felstead says:

Probably the biggest piece is the benefit not only to HBX, but to all of our clients and partners. By having a modern tech stack, we are able to provide a better service and a better future to everyone who works with us because we will not be dragging this technical debt around with us forever.

Previously, the business was spending about two or three times longer developing new functionality due to its tech debt. Felstead adds:

Now that we’re on one single platform, one modern tech stack, we are able to get to market in half or even a third of the time that it used to take us.

The accuracy of the results HBX Group provides to both clients and partners will improve, and the firm will be able to provide better and more competitive offers to all its connected clients, thanks to the faster and more reliable connections within the travel ecosystem.

The business will also be able to offer some of its technology services in the future directly to clients and partners. Felstead notes:

This will enable them not to make the investment or go through some of the challenges that we've had to go through, because they will be able to buy that service from us.

It's been a successful transition, but tackling 10 years of technical debt wasn’t an easy process. In conclusion, Felstead says her biggest lesson learned is:

Don't do this again.

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