Staff in NDSU’s Enterprise Computing and Infrastructure Department have been working to improve the Bison football ticket reservation system since students rushed to claim tickets for the first game of the 2013 season, causing the system to crash.
The 3,916 free student tickets available for each home game are reserved on a first-come, first-served basis. Tickets are released through the Web-based application at 8 a.m. the Monday before each game.
The application was first used during the 2011 Bison football season. Student demand for tickets was much lower at that time. “Originally, it took a few days for all the tickets to be claimed,” said Nathan Olson, manager of enterprise systems. “Now we see that same number of tickets claimed within minutes.”
Students log in and “line up” in the application early to wait for tickets to be released, and data captured by the department reveals that students frantically refresh their Web browsers in the final minutes counting down to 8 a.m. in effort to claim one of the tickets.
By 8:01 a.m. on the Monday before the first game of 2013, students had claimed 643 tickets, an impressive number given the university was closed and students were on holiday in observance of Labor Day. The reservation system began to fail shortly after that first minute.
“When that happened, students were loud over social media because it affected everyone,” said Sarah Russell, executive commissioner of technology in NDSU’s student government. “Hearing student complaints, we knew removing that stress for students—so they either get their ticket or get on the waitlist—would be a huge benefit for their 8 a.m. Monday routine.”
To fix discovered issues in preparation for the next game, staff in the Enterprise Computing and Infrastructure Department made changes to the application, database and server to eliminate a bug, speed up the reservation process and increase the number of requests that could be handled at the same time. They also optimized the Web page students first access to reserve a ticket. “Our goal was to get students in and out of the system as quickly as possible,” said Jill Peterson, database applications developer. “On average, we were able to reduce the size of images used in the application by 72 percent, enabling each page to be downloaded more quickly.”
Despite these efforts, the system crashed again while students were reserving tickets for the second game of the season. Staff manually intervened to provide intermittent access to the ticket system. “I’m blown away by the diligence and perseverance of the team working on this behind the scenes,” Russell said. “As students sit at their computer and click a button to reserve their ticket, there are people behind the screen working to make it happen.”
Even with spotty access to the system, students claimed all tickets in shortly over an hour.
“Performance tuning for a system like this is like the game Whac-a-Mole,” Olson said. “You fix one thing – or, in this case, remove a bottleneck in one location – and the problem simply moves elsewhere.”
After the second game, several additional fixes were put in place and a decision was made to move the ticket reservation application to a virtual machine. The NDSU Technology Fee Advisory Committee, which makes recommendations to the vice president of information technology regarding appropriate use of the student technology fee, was instrumental in funding the equipment used to host the virtual machine.
“Without support from the Technology Fee Advisory Committee, the option to quickly provision a virtual machine with the resources necessary for the football tickets application would not have existed,” Olson said.
Anticipating an increase in traffic on NDSU’s website during the ESPN College GameDay coverage on Sept. 21, staff also worked with University Relations to preemptively optimize the NDSU homepage in the same way they had done previously for the ticketing system site. Ticket reservations for the game went without any major disruptions, and the NDSU website had an increase in traffic of 23 percent on the homepage and 44 percent on the university’s admissions site.
In early October, NDSU Homecoming game tickets were all claimed within six minutes of being released, and students saw no problems. Approximately 2,000 of those tickets were gone within the first minute. Marc Wallman, NDSU interim vice president for information technology, said he hoped students noticed the improvements. “My sincere thanks to students for their patience and to staff for their unrelenting efforts to meet student demands,” Wallman said.
“It speaks volumes when IT staff put that much time and effort in so students can enjoy their Homecoming game,” Russell said. “There’s a sense of community for students surrounding Bison football, and when we gain national attention and see increased admissions traffic, it benefits everyone.”
NDSU is recognized as one of the nation's top 108 public and private universities by the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education.