Schubert Ticketing Services

Conducting Sales Harmoniously

Selling tickets for theater, opera and sporting events might seem like basic transaction processing. But the core of this business is seat analysis, which rivals decision support in complexity. Here's a sample request: "I need the best available orchestra seats for a party of 10 for Phantom of the Opera on any Wednesday night over the next two months, except the third Wednesday of the month. One member of our party is in a wheelchair and will need an aisle seat." Two other factors add to the complexity. Dozens of similar queries can hit the system at once, and the definition of "best available seating" changes constantly.

To meet this kind of demand over and over, New York City-based Schubert Ticketing Services, which sells tickets to most Broadway and Off-Broadway productions and numerous other events, has adopted a parallel database on parallel processing hardware. "What parallel processing can do for us is gather up lots of seats simultaneously--if you have your data partitioned properly," says David Andrews, director of operations and chief technology executive. "A database that can support parallel updates can fire off multiple data requests that can be handled in parallel. We will do as many things in parallel as possible so we can get one request out of the way and the next one under way."

Schubert Ticketing chose a clustered SMP architecture of Digital Equipment Corp. servers running Digital Unix with Informix's OnLine Dynamic Server as the database engine. Clients will be 486 PCs running Windows 95. "The data is centralized; the clients are all over the place in six states," says Andrews. The firm opted for the RISC Alpha chips because they support 64-bit processing, and only DEC was ready with its 64-bit architecture on Schubert's timetable. "Informix's partitioning scheme meant superior performance," Andrews adds.

The database engine for the ticketing application is just part of a $7 million migration to a client/server system. But ticketing--the mission-critical business process--is driving everything else. Schubert has more than 600 PC clients accessing the database from dozens of outlets in six states. It sells about 11.5 million tickets--worth about $600 million--per year.

Andrews is leading his 35-member IS staff through a two-year migration. "Today we're on the ragged edge. I wouldn't want to deploy it," he says. The application is still under development, and Andrews says it will need all the performance that the Alpha and OnLine Dynamic Server will offer by the time he's ready to deploy. "When we spec'd what we needed a year ago, that's where we are on the performance curve today, but we want 50 percent above that for our safety margin," he says. "That will be here a year from now."

Schubert presently uses a Control Data mainframe with a proprietary database. "It's finely honed and tuned to ticketing but in a single-threaded manner," Andrews explains. "So we are dependent on a single CPU for our analysis." There is enormous administrative overhead in this system. "Every time you make a change in the database, you have to write a program to restructure all the in-memory data pointers."

Although plans aren't final yet, he anticipates using six to eight Alphas in three separate boxes. As a hedge against growth, each box can handle as many as 12 CPUs. Andrews plans on 1GB of RAM with a 100GB database. "We typically have about 20 million-plus seats available for sales at any one time and a customer phone database of about three million entries per year. Today we're limited in historical data analysis, and it's not cost-effective." That will change. Andrews envisions a data warehouse for decision support using extra processors.

"To get the power out of SMP you have to be cognizant of your business activity and its data," he advises. "Then be proactive about how you partition your database and how you spread it across CPUs and disk drives, in order to maximize the performance of the database."

The company has not brought in many consultants, because the IS development staff of 10 understands its data and how people use it. "Customer-service-oriented solutions are becoming more important. You want someone to pick up the phone in 20 seconds and get you on your way quickly," Andrews says. "IT decisions have to flow from the business process. For Schubert, everything is driven from ticket sales."