Online travel ticketing in India has gotten mature and more Indians are making their travel plans online, says a latest research. Whether it is air tickets, bus tickets or rail tickets, people have begun to trust online booking systems like IRCTC, MakeMyTrip, RedBus and many others. In online travel, the Indian Railways has a significant contribution and IRCTC (Indian Railway Catering & Tourism Corporation), a subsidiary of the Indian Railways, handles online ticketing among other things. However, unlike other e-ticketing sites, it has often faced consumer ire for sluggish and laggy performance.

Needless to say, the number of people accessing the IRCTC site is much higher than the others, especially during the two hours of tatkal or last minute bookings. The reason is simple – tatkal online booking window opens a day in advance before the date of your journey just for two hours, and all the tickets are sold within an hour. The site almost breaks down at 10 AM as it is unable to handle the load. The site has to handle 10.7 million (and growing, according to the comScore report for April 2013) unique visitors per month and it is capable of handling about 40-45,000 tatkal railway tickets during the 2-hour tatkal window. Needless to say, this isn’t enough. We are a huge population and the number of seats available could be small compared to the number of seats required (each ticket has four people trying to book it), but let’s not dwell on that. Technology cannot resolve this issue. However, the overload that the site suffers at 10 AM everyday can be resolved.

During the Union Budget this year, spruced e-ticketing and server capabilities were promised with an estimated budget of Rs 10 crore. The site was to be improved to handle 60-65,000 tickets with the help of servers upgraded to 64GB RAM. This would allow 80 lakh concurrent connections compared to the current 10 lakh. While all this sounds good, we think with the growing popularity and feasibility of online booking, the number of people opting for online booking will increase year by year. IRCTC can currently handle 2000 tatkal bookings per minute while the latest proposed improvement is around 7,200 tickets per minute. Now, it isn't clear what upgrades IRCTC has planned for its servers, but here are a few things that could help resolve the long waiting hours for IRCTC tatkal consumers and prepare other e-ticketing sites for future.

Role of servers and why they cannot handle the load
In general, e-ticketing has two main aspects – one part includes networking, interconnectivity and servers while the other part includes convenient billing system made available to consumers. While the technical aspect has to ensure that complete operation or process is smooth and swift, there should also be ample of easy payment options given to users. The server helps to form secure connection for each consumer who logs into the site. e-ticketing companies design these servers to handle a particular number of connections, but in the past couple of years, this number has been growing with each passing day. During the tatkal booking 2-hour window, the server has to handle multiple times the number of connections than it can manage. So, if you are disconnected, you have to wait until there is room for you, which is possible only if someone else gets disconnected. Moreover, a failure at one step means the person has to begin right from the start.

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Once disconnected, start right from login

Raj Jadhav, VP Solutions Consulting, Tech-support and IT, D-Link, tell us that one also has to understand the Indian consumer behaviour as there are many people accessing the site just to check the rates, view the ticketing process or likewise; the server capability has been designed considering such bogus connections too. So while designing the server, it is important to consider these additional connections that your server will have to handle. He explains, “The machine won’t understand if you are there to genuinely buy the ticket or simply view the process or check rates. As soon as you log into the e-ticketing site, a secure connection is formed, genuine or not. So, if the site is capable of handling for instance 1 lakh connections then, maybe some percent of connections are not genuine but the site has to still maintain them.”

According to him, another aspect that should be considered is the kind of relationship these e-ticketing companies have with banks or telecom companies to provide the right communication infrastructure and banking response so that the transaction is completed on time. The system understands technicalities and it has certain wait time after which it will get disconnected.

Improving server infrastructure
Raj Jadhav says that e-ticketing companies like IRCTC can spruce up the server capability by deploying L4 to L7 (Layer 4 to Layer 7) infrastructure. This infrastructure allows to instantly add new servers. For instance, if a server experiences a surge in traffic, then immediately one will be able to add another server, which will take care of the extra load. With this system in place, the IT team manager can decide and share the load on multiple servers, i.e., server load balancing.

A job can be allocated per server; for instance, one server can handle only 300 tickets. If the server is overloaded, then one can add another server that can handle 200-300 transactions per minute. This is something that sites like Facbeook and Twitter are doing – the only difference is e-ticketing is done over a secure connection. This is one reason why we don’t see these sites complaining about overloaded servers. One should have the feasibility or capability to keep on adding servers. 

Flexible booking timings
A little flexibility in the tatkal booking timings can also help. For instance, there can be a 1-hour tatkal window for trains leaving before 2 AM, while another 1-hour window for trains leaving after 2 PM. This way the concentration of the load will be distributed over two hours.

Cloud server comes to the rescue
In case of IRCTC, overcrowded servers are the biggest challenge they are facing. Amazon may sell 13.5 million items worldwide on a record-breaking day, while Indian Railways consistently sells more than 1 lakh tickets everyday. Another possible issue could be all their servers are concentrated in one region. For instance, a person from western India is booking the ticket, but the main server is in Delhi – this could also cause delays. The key solution these days is cloud computing. If they have cloud computing infrastructure in place, then Delhi customers can connect to Delhi servers and Mumbai customers can connect to the western server, wherever it is placed.


Cloud servers are convenient

On deploying cloud, another convenient factor is if the Delhi server is overloaded, then you can move transactions to the server in the nearest region and this will help proportion the load. Every networking device has its limitations, but there is a mechanism to share the load on multiple devices.  

Rather than deploying third-party cloud services, it is more convenient to build their own, and Railways can afford to have their own cloud. Managing cloud servers is simpler and one person can remotely take care of it. This is something employed by giants like Yahoo and Google too. There won't be any downtime and the L4 to L7 design will further add to the convenience. The cloud company also helps manage the security. Moreover, one doesn’t have to worry about the type or amount of RAM needed to upgrade.

Developing nations like China had been facing similar e-ticketing issues, but have resolved them efficiently. The Indian Railways has grand plans for IRCTC – claiming to make the site capable of booking 7,200 e-tickets per minute, in the current fiscal. This would mean 5200 additional tickets will be booked per minute. The estimated cost by Railways for this is said to be 100 crores, which is ten times the 10 crore budget announced during the Union Budget 2013. In a nutshell, we require a scaleable operation, as simply adding more resources may just not help. Building a scaleable application along with a good architectural solution could help IRCTC perform efficiently for the next couple of years. We'd like to point out that we tried contacting IRCTC for this story and about the status of improvements promised in the budget, but received no response.

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