The Data Scientists guide to buying a Glastonbury ticket
So the tickets sold out in a record time of just over 1 hour 40 minutes this year. For the uninitiated every year (except for the 4 yearly fallow years like 2012) the ordeal of trying to get tickets to the Glastonbury Festival gets more stressful, this year over 2 million people were trying to buy the 150,000 tickets at the same time… just how do you maximise your chances of success?
1) Get the right kit
There’s no use getting up and 8:45 on Sunday morning, switching on the PC and hoping to get straight to the booking page. Oh no there is a lot of planning involved, just remember if you do the same thing as everyone else you will have the same chance of success as they do and I don’t like those odds….
I first thought I would use my hadoop cluster and have 12 pcs hammering away at the f5 key hoping to get the elusive booking page to show (instead of the dreaded 404 page not found because the server is hopelessly overloaded) but instead I went for speaking to my neighbours and asking if I could “borrow” their wireless internet for the morning, now you have to get on and be trusted by people to ask this sort of thing but I think they took pity on an ageing rocker and so on Sunday morning I had 3 laptops each attached to a different internet connection plus the iPad on a 3g card. Now that’s 4 Internet connection through 3 seperate ISPs, 4 seperate IP addresses – that has to be better than however many tabs on however many browsers on a single or multiple PCs through one Internet connection, doesn’t it?
Next what browser… a bit of research and Chrome and Firefox seem to have had better success than IE but people would say that wouldn’t they! anyway I went with a fresh install of chrome, so no spyware, add-ons etc. to slow down my pageloading and for the hell of it no Virus protection – I figure I’m only going to be hitting one page and only for a couple of hours so what could possibly go wrong
2) Don’t play by the same rules as everyone else – have some “inside” knowledge
So if you think about it, there’s no way that whoever is selling tickets for Glastonbury sets up a system to do so and then leaves it like that… the things are only on sale once a year for a couple of hours but in that time over 2 million people hit the system. This will have to be a special setup just for this purpose ( which if you work in IT, you might think I wonder if it was tested properly!) Now you are going to need some load balancing, one server isn’t going to handle this lot. It turns out that some plum who set the system up made a mistake in the DNS entries. Instead of typing 194.168.xxx.xxx he’d put 192.168.xxx.xxx for one of the servers- actually an easy mistake to make because many internal networks do start 192 in fact you’re home network almost definitly does.
This meant that the entire load of browser requests was going to only one of the servers, the other one was sitting there doing nothing, now some bright spark either worked this out or got some inside info. it was then a simple matter of editing the host file on your PC to point to the 194.168.xxx.xxx missing from the agencies erroneous DNS entries and voila you had a big fat server all to yourself ( and a few 1000 others who’d got the info.) and the tickets were as good as in your hand!
3) Know where people in the Know hang out and use their knowledge
Now I wish I could claim that I worked out the above myself, maybe by writing an awesome MapReduce job and running it on my home cluster but I didn’t. However I did know where the sort of people that would work this stuff out would be and how to get the info. There are forums out there on the internet where incredibly knowledgeable people post about all sorts of things. If you turn up as a newbie and ask a question your likely to get a “did you use search?” or “let me google that for you” type of answer. If you ask the right question to the right person in the right way then there’s some awesome info. around.
A forum exists for festivals and Glastonbury is one of them, if somebody works out how to get in through a backdoor that’s where the info. will be. It was this year and I expect will be next year too.
4) Take the risk
Actually changing your hosts file to point at an IP address provided by someone on the internet that you don’t know and then using that site to handover £400 (8 deposits of £50) is an insane thing to do, pretty stupid.
No Really don’t do it, unless you are happy to risk losing your money (and maybe identity etc.) but there are those who knew of the backdoor and either wouldn’t take the risk or didn’t have the tech know-how to change their hosts file – they may well be sitting at home watching the TV next June instead of standing in the rain in a muddy field
5) The Devil take the hindmost
After the backdoor had been discovered there was around 20 minutes of activity before the ticket agency sorted their IP addresses and opened up all the servers to outside world. This meant if you had edited your hostfile just before or after the addresses were sorted you were now at a disadvantage, being directed to only one server instead of being load balanced and if you don’t remember to take the entry out of your hostfile then next year the chances are you’ll be trying to hit a server that doesn’t exist anymore!!
So what has all this got to do with Big Data? not much maybe but I like the story, I like the fact that finding a small amount of information out of a huge mass (as in the internet) can greatly increase your odds of success. Information which you can gain through an un-orthodox method, either working it out from other information that is not directly related to your problem or information which you can get from a community of experts. That information may lead to a risky path that could fail but one of the Big Data stories is the “fail fast” method.
To paraphrase some comments from Glastonbury chat forum
The days of one person logging on and getting a ticket for themselves are long gone. You need to get into groups and you need to have Facebook, Twitter, MSN and forums open so you can get information on how to get tickets. (now that sounds more like Big Data!)
There are 10 types of people in the world, those with Glastonbury tickets and those without (a nice twist on an old geek joke!)
Like I said at the beginning if you do what everyone else does your chances of success are going to be the same as theirs.
See you at the Cider Bus!
PS there has been talk about whether the Host file backdoor hack was possible because of an error on the part of the IT setup or a side effect of the way the ticket agency had tried to limit traffic… not sure which is true but saying it was an error makes a better story