A sudden onrush of customers can quickly bring down online transaction systems. As an antidote, ELCA developed a highly available and scalable peak protection solution, PeakProtect, for its SecuTix ticketing platform. Based on F5 Application Delivery Controllers, the solution is now available as a service and can be activated in front of any other online system.
The independent Swiss IT services group, ELCA, provides comprehensive and multifaceted services including consulting, development, integration, and processes. Its subsidiary, SecuTix, has developed the SecuTix 360° product to provide the entertainment industry with secure multichannel technology supporting online ticket sales.
SecuTix 360° is a cloud-based platform utilized by large sports clubs and stadiums, entertainment groups, amusement parks, trade fairs, major museums, and city portals across Europe. In 2015, PeakProtect was developed based on SecuTix 360° and is now provided as a service on its own. The solution helps organizations boost ticket sales and enhance the audience’s experience before, during, and after events. It is used to securely manage sales of over 30 million tickets per year.
“In 2015, as an innovation partner of the Paléo Festival Nyon, ELCA faced the challenge of handling a customer onrush. This occurred in the first few seconds after opening the ticket shop for the festival,” recalls Séverin Voisin, Head of SaaS and Service Operations at ELCA. “Each year, more and more visitors want to secure their seats as early as possible.”
Using F5 BIG-IP Application Delivery Controllers, ELCA developed its dedicated PeakProtect solution to manage data flow during peak times, eliminating overload and system crashes. In turn, the Paléo Festival Nyon managed to sell over 20,000 tickets in only 12 minutes.
“With F5, we use modern, constantly updated security solutions that are state of the art.”Séverin Voisin, Head of SaaS Service and Operations, ELCA
“We wanted to use a solution as the technical foundation for PeakProtect that safeguards efficient, secure and highly scalable data distribution,” says Voisin. “Since 2005, we have utilized F5 products for our application delivery needs and are very satisfied with them. Most of our customers use F5 solutions, too. Therefore, the decision to use F5 for PeakProtect was an obvious choice for us.”
ELCA and SecuTix now utilize F5 BIG-IP Local Traffic Manager (LTM) as load balancer for PeakProtect. They also rely on the BIG-IP Access Policy Manager (APM) security solutions for access protection, and BIG-IP Application Security Manager (ASM) as web application firewall (WAF).
Combining these F5 products, ELCA and SecuTix developed the PeakProtect infrastructure to intercept incoming requests (in the case of high data traffic) and put them on a kind of waiting list. This queue is hosted by ELCA but is presented in the customer’s individual design. A web page from the ticket vendor informs the customer that he is being queued and how long he needs to wait for his request to be processed. The request is then routed back to the online shop as soon as it’s available.
Other PeakProtect features have been added over time to help avoid or ban robots, and manage opening times and APIs.
“This solution can be used to process ticket sales and also for product promotions,” Voisin explains. “For example, we provided the company, Swisscom, with our online waiting area during the iPhone launch in October 2015. After all, when Apple releases a new product, the fans do not only wait in line at brick-and-mortar shops—but also on the Internet,” he says. To be able to handle this onrush, Swisscom chose PeakProtect.
“As we utilize F5 Application Delivery Controllers for our PeakProtect application, we are able to provide a robust, fail-safe, and highly available solution for shopping sites or transactional online systems,” says Voisin.
Based on the F5 BIG-IP platform, PeakProtect gears up online shops for any customer onrush. Now slow performance and aborted transactions are a thing of the past. The F5 security products also take care of data traffic protection.
With PeakProtect, we are prepared for all kinds of scenarios—whether the onrush can be anticipated or not,” says Voisin.
When ticket or product sales start at a fixed time, tens of thousands of users will often access the sales page simultaneously. This causes conventional IT systems to frequently hit their capacity limits. In particular, when seat reservations or bank transfers have to be cross-checked, delays and crashes may occur. This is also true for unexpected peak times—for example, after a successful TV spot or spontaneous Internet buzz.
“As F5 transfers excess data traffic to the ELCA cloud solution and routes it back to the shop systems, capacity limits are never exceeded and the systems always keep running,” explains Voisin. “This way, the shopping sites avoid frustrating customers, which can harm their reputation and lose sales.”
During an unexpected onrush, customer wait times are often unavoidable. However, this is rarely an issue as long as customers are kept informed of the expected wait time and if entertainment (music or news) is provided during the wait. BIG-IP LTM not only transfers data back and forth. It also calculates wait times and forwards the information to PeakProtect, which provides a web page within the ticket vendor’s website design to keep customers informed.
“The customer does not notice that he leaves the target pages and uses our solution,” Voisin adds. “At the same time, PeakProtect offers to play music or videos or display messages while the customer is waiting. The delay does not need to result in frustrated and angered customers, but can be a pleasant experience. The customer knows he can do other things in the meantime, such as brew coffee or chat.”
“As our PeakProtect solution is linked to the protected system through BIG-IP LTM, the integration is done without having to change the application code,” says Voisin. “Using the F5 iRules scripting language, we can perform a wide range of checks that ensure users do not skip the queue, check pool member count, link to the session IDs, bind queues with virtual servers, and so on. With F5, we use modern, constantly updated security solutions that are state of the art,” he says.
According to Voisin, BIG-IP LTM is one of the strongest components of PeakProtect. Since the system contains database locks and legacy systems, application servers tend to bottleneck first. “The F5 ADC is therefore the right component to integrate into PeakProtect,” he says.