Open source is key, says Lastminute.com CTO

Open source is key, says Lastminute.com CTO

Summary: Chip Steinmetz, Part 1: In an exclusive interview, the CTO of the UK travel portal says the open-source community provides better support than IBM or BEA

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TOPICS: Tech Industry
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Lastminute.com has earned its place as the UK's dot-com darling by the sheer fact that its business model actually stood up to the market reality-check that killed of so many of its peers.

But although it may have earned its business spurs -- the small matter of profitability aside -- the company doesn't have the same reputation as a technical innovator as its US counterparts such as Amazon, eBay or Google or the UK's Tesco.com.

The incredibly over-the-top interactivity that Boo.com inflicted on the Web -- associating technical innovation with business disaster in the mind of investors -- probably has something to do with Lastminute's low-key tech reputation to date.

But that could all be about to change. Previously head of technology for Walt Disney Internet Group, Chip Steinmetz has been quietly overhauling the dot-com favourite's architecture since his appointment as CTO almost a year ago.

Re-engineering the site around Linux and open-source technologies such as JBoss Web middleware is just one part of a plan to cut page-load times and improve the user interface. The wider picture is to boost Lastminute's image as an e-commerce innovator and services provider while attracting more partnerships such as the one recently announced with TheTrainline.com.

Steinmetz believes that the average travel search on Lastminute is as complex, if not more so, that anything Google or Amazon has to cope with -- which is why his department has so many PhDs keen to work on its unique computer science problems.

ZDNet UK spoke to Steinmetz about the trade-off between usability and speed and the importance of Linux and open-source to his mission.

You joined Lastminute.com around a year ago. Are you happy with the technology platform you inherited and how do you want to develop it?
Last summer was about trying to handle sales growth but now we're concentrating on making the site more reliable. When you're throwing a Web site together at the beginning you might not take all the energy to architect and engineer it as you would have liked if you had realised it was going to be that successful.

But the basic platform you can keep adding to for some time. On the hardware side we bought IBM blade servers. You can keep scaling those up pretty fast and a lot more easily than having big farms of PCs like Google and Yahoo have. It's an advantage for us being a little later in the game than them. We have the chance to take advantage of some new technology.

Were you happy with the page-load times when you arrived?
Last year average page load across Europe was about 12 seconds, including people on dial-up. It is measured by a third-party company Gomez Services with about 1,000 nodes around the world. If you looked at Expedia at that time they had a page-load time of about nine seconds, Travelocity was about nine and a half seconds, and we put a bunch of infrastructure in place and we got it down to around four seconds' average page load.

Did that hold up over Christmas? Some analysts put your load times at 20 seconds during that period.
Generally I was pretty happy over Christmas, actually. Relative to the Christmas before I got here, 2003 was orders of magnitude better and faster. It's a lot faster than most travel sites -- a lot faster than Opodo for sure.

Those slower pages were probably oriented to products we didn't pay as much attention to like gifts. So over Christmas a lot of people ordered gifts and we didn't optimise that; everything else was fine. We had plenty of extra capacity -- 50 per cent extra -- we could have handled. So that is available for growth into the summer high season when we can use it all up. We concentrated on areas that were high transaction volume first and made sure we could handle those, now we have to address everything. All the gift stuff and all the things on the site that we call lifestyle products -- there are implementations going in this month to improve those too.

Topic: Tech Industry

Andrew Donoghue

About Andrew Donoghue

"If I'd written all the truth I knew for the past ten years, about 600 people - including me - would be rotting in prison cells from Rio to Seattle today. Absolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism."

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Andrew Donoghue is a freelance technology and business journalist with over ten years on leading titles such as Computing, SC Magazine, BusinessGreen and ZDNet.co.uk.

Specialising in sustainable IT and technology in the developing world, he has reported and volunteered on African aid projects, as well as working with charitable organisations such as the UN Foundation and Computer Aid.

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www.greenwashIT.co.uk

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