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The high street has borne the brunt of the UK’s ever-growing appetite for online shopping, prompting retailers to overhaul their technology strategies to accommodate this shift in consumer buying behaviour.
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To ensure their online stores have the capacity to cope with seasonal fluctuations in demand, many retailers have opted to host their sites in a private or public cloud environment, where resources can be scaled rapidly in line with peaks and troughs in demand.
In some parts of the retail industry, it can be relatively easy to predict when a surge in traffic is likely to occur, with the period between Black Friday and the Christmas shopping period now established as the busiest time of year for most.
But for companies in the film industry, such as Vue Entertainment, it can be an altogether trickier business to predict which films are likely to capture the public’s imagination. Roland Jones, executive director of technical services at Vue, describes the situation as “feast or famine”.
“We have shifted from a world where around 5% of our bookings were done online to 60% for some of our films, so we have seen a massive increase in the volume of transactions on our digital platforms,” he said.
While an uptick in demand for ticket sales around the summer blockbuster season is to be expected, it only takes a few days of warm, sunny weather to mess with Vue’s footfall and online traffic projections, which is why it can be so difficult to predict how much capacity its sites will need.
“At the first hint of summer in the UK, everybody is out lying on a bit of grass and no one wants to be in the cinema,” said Jones. “The next week, you get a bit of rain or there is a blockbuster released, and all of sudden you’re swinging to 100 to 200 or 300% of the previous week’s footfall, which has a knock-on effect on our online operations.”
Also, it is not uncommon for movie studios to ramp up the hype surrounding their big releases months in advance. This, in turn, can result in huge numbers of people visiting Vue’s sites seeking information about how to pre-order their tickets way ahead of the official release date.
Surge in traffic
For example, the company saw a huge surge in traffic to its sites 10 weeks before the December 2015 release date for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This translated into 10,000 tickets being sold online within 90 minutes of the box office officially opening for the film. By the end of that day, 45,000 tickets had been bought.
“One of the things we have seen with the film industry is there are bigger and bigger spikes as the years go by,” said Jones.
After the summer 2015 release of the James Bond film Spectre, it took just a month for that peak in online traffic load to be surpassed, he added.
“Spectre was a high water mark and then Star Wars: The Force Awakens surpassed that within a month.
“Once you’ve got that hype and excitement, the next episode of that film will be even bigger. It almost has to be. It’s very difficult to say fewer people will be bothered about the next one.”
“It was the configuration we put in last year that has been significantly helpful in dealing with the enormous transaction peaks we experience”
Roland Jones, Vue Entertainment
To ensure Vue’s online platforms can cope with the rising number of customers that use its website to buy tickets or access information about the films it shows, the company has been working with managed cloud service provider Rackspace for about decade.
“We have been on an evolution through a number of different architectures and configurations as the years have passed, but it was the configuration we put in last year that has been significantly helpful in dealing with the enormous transaction peaks we experience,” said Jones.
Vue moved to adopt Rackspace’s VMware-based managed cloud offering as part of a wider push to update and expand its hosting capacity and tackle the growing pressure on its “hyper-critical” web resources.
This involved switching over to a newer Rackspace datacentre, and the whole deployment took about three months, said Jones.
“We moved datacentres, as well as changed the nature of all the infrastructure underpinning [the website] without any downtime or visibility of those changes occurring to our end customer,” he said.
Keeping things lean and mean
Vue operates 200 cinemas across the world, containing more than 800 screens, which are used to show more than 600 film titles a year to the viewing public.
The organisation’s IT needs are looked after centrally by a team of nine people, with support from six others working in the field.
It might not sound like much for an organisation of this size, which is why the company opted for Rackspace’s managed support service, said Jones.
“We run a pretty lean IT operation, and we certainly don’t have the capacity for people to do overlapping shifts.
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“Where we are right now with the web is that it is almost hyper-critical to our business, in that it cannot be interrupted and always needs to be there, and yet – like a lot of organisations – I don’t run a 24/7 IT operations because it’s just not economic.
“I couldn’t carry virtualisation infrastructure and network experts with the same volume that Rackspace obviously can, for example, and that is why we rely on them.”
According to Jones, the website is the company’s shop window to the public, and is where users can also buy tickets for Vue’s alternative programme of events, which includes music concerts, Royal Shakespeare Company plays and ballets.
This is an area that Vue is building out as part of its push to position itself as an all-round entertainment provider, rather than just a film company, said Jones.
On the back of its work with Rackspace, the company now aims to replicate its managed cloud setup in its other overseas territories, and Jones predicts that enterprises in other markets are likely to favour that route over time.
“I am interested in the managed cloud because utility computing is great for casual users, but it is going to take a longer time for the enterprise to get its head around the cloud, and one of the bridges to that is using a managed cloud,” he said.