Opera turns to AWS to speed up booking process

Royal Opera House

Innovation is not the first word that springs to mind when talking about the Royal Opera House. Founded in 1892, the organisation is not like one of those German opera houses that relishes challenging an audience’s expectations by setting Fidelio in a lunatic asylum or Cosi Fan Tutte in a magazine publishing company. It has a reputation for high-class, polished productions where audiences know what they’re getting.

It’s a formula that’s proved to be successful thus far. So successful in fact, that trying to get tickets to a production on the day they go on sale has been a mad lottery, generally involving sitting in front of a computer and refreshing like crazy, all the while hoping that your desired seats haven’t been snapped up.

It’s a problem that was certainly occupying the minds of the administration and the company looked to find a technical solution to improve the ticketing process. But just as the opera house is not wedded to radical interpretations of classics, its IT department was still behind the times when it came to technology.

“Data centre?” says Rob Greig, the Royal Opera House’s CTO. “Our data centre was under a sink.” It was also pretty old, with much of the equipment being installed in the late 90s. “In the arts, we really sweat our assets,” Greig adds.

It’s one thing to look to upgrade the IT infrastructure and it’s another thing to fund it. Greig and his team were looking into the project just at the time that austerity measures were beginning to bite: Royal Opera wasn’t immune from this process.

“We had big hit in funding,” admits Greig. There was another factor, however, as opera is an expensive art-form to stage. Indeed, what money there was needed to be spent on production. “If we’re spending money on IT, we’re not spending it on stage,” says Greig.

Looking towards the cloud

The aim to upgrade the website was imperative though and funds were committed to the project. The redesign of the ROH website was put out to tender and the contract was won by an agency called POP who suggested that the site was hosted in the cloud. It was the type of implementation almost designed for the cloud – pretty consistent traffic for most of the year but for 30 days it was hammered extensively. So there was a real desire to be able to scale to handle the traffic peaks.

The original intention was to move to Windows Azure, but that wasn’t deemed suitable for the project so ROH quickly settled on Amazon Web Services (AWS), which was offering the features that ROH needed. The content platform was built in AWS using LAMP, while the ecommerce side to handle transactions is Microsoft-based.

A key reason for going with AWS was the availability of Amazon’s Elastic Load Balancer. “That was key to us,” says Greig. “It’s incredibly useful to us as it scales vertically (moving to a larger instance) and horizontally (moving to more instances).”

ROH allies its use of Elastic Load Balancing with Amazon CloudFront, a facility for improving the performance of websites by moving requests to the nearest geographic server.

The use of Amazon has provided greater flexibility to the Royal Opera House. On an average day, the system is handled by four servers, but this can scale up to 60 when traffic is heavy.

The site makes extensive use of Amazon’s NoSQL database offering, DyanamoDB, to fulfill its orders. “We store all our details in DynamoDB,” says Greig. “It means that we’ve moved from a website where people were kept hanging on to a site where I’ve seen people complete an order within a minute.”

Having moved to Amazon, the ROH is looking to extend its use of AWS technology. “We're about to implement Amazon Direct Connect. Being able to connect to Amazon without going on the internet improves the service we offer. We’re also very interested in Glacier,” Greig adds.

Transformational capabilities

From an organisation with a limited amount of infrastructure capacity, the Royal Opera House has transformed itself. Ticket purchasers no longer have to spend half the day hanging on the phone or refreshing a website. Instead they can purchase tickets promptly. It’s also helped the administration as the organisation has moved from a situation where online purchasing was painful to the current state where 60 per cent of tickets are bought online. “Our aim is 80 percent” says Greig.

The cloud experience has encouraged Greig to go further. The ROH is now looking to replace its creaking infrastructure and it is expected to go down the cloud route again. The company may still be some way from relying on modern, avant-garde productions, but it is prepared to set the pace when it comes to technology.


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