About Holiday Extras
Holiday Extras is a leading UK-based provider of travel add-ons, including airport parking, hotel bookings, insurance, car hire, and currency exchange. Through its website and contact centers, it handles four million bookings for more than seven million passengers across seven European countries. In its 32-year history, Holiday Extras has grown into a £295 million business by offering great deals and by bringing innovations like “undercover” hotel bookings—where guests only find out which hotel they’ve booked once they receive their booking confirmation—to the UK market. The company’s success is also reflected in the many awards it has won as well as its listing by The Sunday Times Best Companies survey as one of the top five companies to work for.
Holiday Extras had been using the Microsoft Dynamics ERP system running on a local server to host its new finance platform. However, in keeping with the company’s IT philosophy of taking hardware away from the business, it wanted a new platform—OpenAccounts (OA) from Advanced Business Solutions—to be externally hosted.
“With our old platform, we were working with yesterday’s figures,” explains Damien Turner, strategic group head at Holiday Extras. “We wanted an accurate balance sheet so we knew what was going in and out of the business.”
Initially, OpenAccounts was hosted at a collocated data center, but the arrangement soon ran into problems. “We were seeing performance issues because the collocation partner was running its hardware at 95 percent of its capacity all the time,” says Turner. “This resulted in a poor experience for our team working on the new system. They began to lose trust in the platform when it was really the hosting at fault.”
In addition, making capacity upgrades was cumbersome and time intensive. Even adding 10 percent more disk space to a server could take a week. “Holiday Extras is a very fast-paced business. We’re growing rapidly and need services instantly,” says Turner. “Any blocker is a big negative for us. We just couldn’t provision resources quickly enough as we grew.”
Why Amazon Web Services
As existing customers of Amazon Web Services, Turner and his team wanted to move the OpenAccounts platform to AWS. Matt Smith,system engineer at Holiday Extras, says, “We ran a trial, and it took about three to four weeks to build a stack, test it, and put it live. When it went live , we had to increase disk space, which took less than four minutes. It was like chalk and cheese compared to how we used to work.” The platform runs on Windows Server on Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) instances with associated block-level storage from Amazon Elastic Block Store (Amazon EBS). Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) provides object storage, and low-cost Amazon Glacier is used for archiving. Because the platform deals with sensitive financial data, the instances exist within an Amazon Virtual Private Cloud (Amazon VPC) and are securely connected to Holiday Extras’ in-house data center via AWS Direct Connect.
Turner says, “We had good support from the AWS team, so we used their knowledge. Plus Matt and I are both AWS Certified SysOps Administrators.” Holiday Extras also uses AWS CloudFormation to automate the deployment of its environments.
Users now log on to the finance platform via a terminal. Turner adds, “The transition was simpler than I expected. The finance staff were impressed that it was hiccup-less.” He notes that since the migration, the entire finance team has confirmed that the general performance of the system is “considerably better—snappier, faster, and more reliable.” In addition, single sign-on means that users can log on using the same credentials they used to log on to their machines, further simplifying the interface.
Since moving the finance platform to AWS, Holiday Extras has seen quantifiable improvements in speed, reliability, ease of scalability, and user satisfaction. These all contribute to a finance system that reflects the company’s cash flow more accurately.
Anthony Clarke-Cowell, head of communication at Holiday Extras, says, “We pay around half the price for our hosting compared to before, which does impact bottom the line, and there are longer term benefits. We have had excellent feedback from partners and suppliers who find that their interactions with our finance process are easier, quicker, and more efficient.”
One variable of the system is ReconArt, a transaction-matching service that takes an import file from the company’s booking system and processes it into a file that OpenAccounts can understand. It only runs for a couple of hours a day, but its work is crucial to the business.
Turner says, “Since going live with OpenAccounts, we often had performance issues due to the massive volume of transactions it's referencing. Using AWS, we have had no such issues since we've been on the platform.” The speed of the platform has also vastly increased. The nightly booking integration process that used to take 15 minutes now takes just five, and reports encompassing hundreds of thousands of lines now compile within an hour, when before they could take up to three.
Clarke-Cowell adds, “Internal teams now have considerably better insight into budgetary spend and can process invoices quicker and with less bureaucratic overhead. Our finance team reports that they can get their work done in half the time. All these things impact our ability to grow and to continue to provide the highest level of service to our partners and suppliers.”
According to Turner, other benefits include regaining control of the environment and the peace of mind that comes with the reliability of AWS.
“Now we can monitor our platform ourselves and make changes straight away,” Turner says. “We can change the memory or CPU of the environment so easily. Previously we’d have to request this from the hosters , which would go through a committee, taking weeks. ” Turner adds that the environment is self-healing, self-monitoring, and self-scaling, and his team rarely needs to log on and make changes. This is partly due to the use of AWS CloudFormation, which provides Holiday Extras with a reproducible infrastructure.
Smith says, “We’ve gone through a lot of stopping and starting of the infrastructure to test its resilience. We’ve stopped it and brought it back up in another Availability Zone, so we had the confidence that it could be reproduced, and we even copied the whole stack to the AWS Frankfurt region.”
Turner and Smith are confident that they have found the right solution in AWS. “It’s such an easy relationship,” says Turner. “That’s very hard to find these days. If someone offered us the chance to move to a competitor of AWS for half the price, we wouldn’t do it.”
Holiday Extras also works with AWS on beta trials for new services “because AWS knows we’re trying to push things forward,” Turner says. Future plans include a migration of the company’s data warehouse from IBM DB2 to Amazon Redshift, and gradually moving to amicroservices model. Turner says, “We want to foster more of a DevOps culture and push the idea of infrastructure as code. Using AWS, we feel confident we can achieve that.”
“If someone offered us the chance to move to a competitor of AWS for half the price, we wouldn’t do it.”
Damien Turner, Strategic Group Head, Holiday Extras