Ryanair is upgrading its mobile reservation platform using Couchbase’s NoSQL database, allowing it to offer offline functionality to customers via its smartphone app.

The low-cost airline is in the process of a major rebrand as it seeks to shed the negative image of the brand held by some, and offer better, and more personalised, customer service. Part of this strategy has included investment in its popular mobile app, which had received one million downloads as of last year.

The airline carrier is now in the process of deploying Couchbase Mobile in order to enhance the functionality of its mobile app and offer services to customers that may be unable to access a connection - for instance, in mid-flight - or unwilling to pay roaming charges while abroad.

“We realised that some apps don’t travel well in that when you are abroad, some apps, especially travel apps, don’t perform as well as you like,” said Ryanair senior software engineer, Paul Sheridan.

“We want to give you access offline to reference data, such as station information, information about airports, some of our business rules, restrictions. We want to offer you relevant products and services because we know where you are travelling and when you are travelling and we want to allow you to make certain changes even on the day you are travelling.”

Upgrading reservation system

The new project is underpinned by the use of Couchbase Mobile. The platform involves three components: Couchbase Server, its typical NoSQL backend database, Couchbase Sync gateway to synchronise data between a mobile device and the cloud, and Couchbase Lite, an embedded NoSQL database which sits on a mobile device and provides data offline access.

The platform is connected to its existing reservation software system from Accenture-owned subsidiary Navitaire, housed in one of its three data centres.

He said that a decision was made against a complete replacement of the reservation system - with similar attempts made by Ryanair’s rivals failing to provide good value for money. “One of the options we may have toyed with was replacing the reservation system – which is what some of the competitors have done. But it is not just a reservation website – it has got far reaching implications for your business.

“[The mobile platform] needs to be totally independent of a flight reservation system or a hotel booking system, it needs to be centred on the user and users profiles.”

Sheridan added that, while the reservation system is “very good at putting people in seats”, when it comes to the overall traveller experience, it “is not very flexible.”

He told ComputerworldUK: “I won’t say we had issues with the previous system – the reservation system is very good at reserving seats for customers, checking them in, managing inventory and stuff like that. But with the new approach that Ryanair is taking, we want to be more customer-facing, and while it does support use profiles, it can’t support things like single sign-on."

Navigating booming NoSQL market

With the fast-expanding market for NoSQL databases, there were plenty of alternatives to meet the company’s need for non-relational technology. However, Couchbase was seen as the best fit, predominantly for its flexibility and scalability.

“After doing a lot of research on different database solution. We realised that NoSQL would be a better fit for us in terms of flexibility and scale,” he said. “We looked at several different options – MongoDB, Cassandra and each had their own distinct features – but Couchbase ticked more boxes than everybody else, especially in terms of mobile first. “

More traditional SQL relational databases would not have met requirements either.

“In terms of scale and cost probably not," said Sheridan. "But the biggest thing was flexibility. We have huge UX team and every day there is a new idea put forward. A relational database wouldn't have worked for us: the deployment alone would have crippled us in terms of schema releases.”

Going live

The mobile platform plans are quickly developing, and there are plans for it to go live in production towards the end of the year, having begun a proof of concept in the middle of 2014.

“We are not going to go with a big solution, we are going to release it on a piecemeal basis,” Sheridan said. “But by the end of the year we will be in pretty good shape to deliver what the business wants for 2016.”

The plan is to provide increase the number of features available via the firm’s smartphone such as restaurant and activities information, and more.

“Another one of the things, is a fare comparison feature integrated into our search results and Couchbase will play a huge part in that,” he said.

He added: “All of that involves building out an enterprise level caching platform and implementing a caching strategy. Not only in the reservation system but across the entire web platform. It will really help us in terms of performance but it will help us add new features as we go and move towards the end of the year.”

The mobile project also provides another function, offering a testbed for wider use of NoSQL technology within the company.

“We do plan to [use it more widely] in the future. There is huge plans in the pipeline. A lot of it hinges on the success of Couchbase and how well that goes in April and towards the end of the year. I am pretty confident that it will go well.”