Royal Opera House tunes online queuing with AWS cloud

The Royal Opera House has deployed AWS cloud to eliminate the virtual "waiting room" on its website for customers booking tickets online

The Royal Opera House has improved customers’ experience of booking tickets online with a public cloud infrastructure that eliminates the need for a virtual “waiting room” window on its website.

Scheduling about 500 performances every year, the website provides a gateway for customers to book tickets for the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera, making it the world’s busiest opera house.

The Royal Opera House designed and released its website back in 2006 to allow people to book tickets online but its back-end infrastructure could not cope with the demand during peak hours. The load on the service used to bring the whole website down.

“At peak times, we used to have a ‘waiting room’. Having 2,000 people queue up in the waiting room for four hours to book tickets was simply unacceptable,” Rob Greig, the chief technology officer at Royal Opera House told Computer Weekly.

“It was frustrating because our main objective is to improve the customer’s experience from the minute they begin their journey with us.”

Greig joined the Royal Opera House (ROH) in 2009. He worked with the IT team to explore various options to make the website robust given  its online sales volume were starting to grow quickly.

“In 2001, someone told me that no one will buy a ticket on the internet,” Greig said. Today ROH’s average online sales account for 60% of all tickets and reaches 90% on the busiest days.

Royal Opera House - IT strategy and cloud vision

CTO Rob Greig’s IT strategy involves adopting public cloud infrastructure for online booking, and he aims to have ROH’s content infrastructure in the cloud with a "web 3.0" perspective. 

“It is simple – put the content in its natural habitat on the internet. So we upload videos on YouTube and photos on Flickr and bring it all together.” He also believes in keeping data open and accessible.

The organisation is using a private cloud setup to host its financial systems and to process the payment transactions. “With compliance issues, you need to know where sensitive data resides and it has to be in-house, but for occasional peaks you need shared cloud’s scalability," said Greig.

“The hybrid model is the route forward in the cloud. Some CIOs want to actually see where their servers are. That is so 2008,” he said.

“Cloud is a different architecture and you need to think about it differently to see its value. Think about cloud as an application not as a remote server room to which you load workloads traditionally.

“Today cloud’s uptake is limited because people’s understanding around it is limited,” he said.

Greig is now undertaking a major in-house technology refresh to revamp ROH's virtualisation and storage platforms that run critical business and financial applications.

Greig and the IT team started assessing cloud services from 2010, scoped and built the business case in 2011, conducted public cloud beta testing in early 2012 and released the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud-based digital ticketing service in April 2012.

“Our reason to opt for cloud service was to manage activity spikes and to have a scalable infrastructure,” Greig said. “On a busy day we need to run 60 or even 120 servers whereas on a weekday afternoon, we will be using just two servers. To have this kind of scalability in-house was beyond our financial means.”

A year on, people wishing to book a ticket are no longer presented with the "busy" window. This has resulted in an increase in the number of people booking online. Other major venues in London including the Royal Albert Hall and the National Theatre still have waiting rooms during peak traffic hours such as the Proms.

Why Amazon Web Services won over Microsoft Azure

Greig and his team assessed two public cloud suppliers -- Microsoft Azure and AWS. “We first looked at Azure but found it was hard to provision and the service levels were poor and unhelpful,” he said. “We then looked at AWS, which met our requirements.”

The AWS-hosted website was developed by web design company POP. ROH is using Tessitura, an enterprise application used by arts and cultural organisations worldwide to manage ticketing, marketing and customer relationship activities. Tessitura runs on the AWS infrastructure.

The IT team opted for the Gold support service from AWS and uses a host of Amazon services including EC2, S3, AWS Elastic LoadBalancing, DynamoDB for database management, CloudFront, and CloudFormation. It is now looking at AWS Elastic Beanstalk to make its web services more sophisticated.

The cost of cloud

"We have had some issues with AWS hardware and tools such as DynamoDB,” Greig said. “But it is not more than what would happen if we were on an internal infrastructure.”

He said the team went through a learning curve with AWS. The IT team now understands how to work the infrastructure and what applications to load on what platforms for maximum efficiency.

Greig also admits that the cost of having a scalable cloud service today along with a Gold service arrangement is more expensive than its old infrastructure. 

“But today we are delivering a different kind of experience and our main objective was to deliver better services to our customers," he said.

“Cloud has been an enabler for us. In terms of scale, we are in the top 10% of Tessitura users and we are the only ones that can handle the volume of online sales that we do without a waiting room window."

Image Source:  Die Zauberflote. © ROH / Mike Hoban

Read more on Clustering for high availability and HPC