Off The Rails

BroadVision are proud to provide the software which powers the main Indian Railways website, www.irctc.co.in, and we were particularly interested to read a recent, candid interview with Ramesh Kumar Tandon, the managing director of IRCTC.

The capacity issue discussed in this interview is something we are very aware of, as it sometimes results in complaints from people trying to book tickets coming direct to BroadVision via Twitter. We do actively monitor these, and try to reply where appropriate. Maybe it is through one of these replies that you have reached this article. In this article we’d like to add our perspective to what Mr Tandon said.

Readers outside India may not be aware that IRCTC is the biggest eCommerce site in India, recording an average of 400,000 transactions a day. This average traffic is no problem at all for the server infrastructure, but of course, like all web sites, there are peaks when traffic is many times higher than this. In IRCTC’s case, these peaks are very high indeed, particularly in advance of major holidays with up to nearly 1 million users trying to access the site at the same time. And the servers powering the site are not always able to cope with this volume.

It is worth clarifying exactly what services BroadVision provide to IRCTC. We provide the eCommerce software upon which the IRCTC booking application is built, and we provide consulting services to advise on the best way to use this software. We don’t own, or host the servers on which the application runs. The complete infrastructure is owned by IRCTC and they solely determine the deployed capacity of servers.

Some of the messages we get on Twitter are intelligent and constructive; some are funny; some are downright offensive. And yes, those do hurt our feelings a little. Let’s have a look at a selection of the recent messages:

Why doesn’t BroadVision think of moving #irctc to the cloud?

It’s a good idea, but not something under our control. As mentioned above, BroadVision provides the underlying software on which the site is based, but we don’t own, host or operate the servers on which it runs – IRCTC does this.

BroadVision do actually operate significant cloud-based infrastructures across the world to support our Clearvale product. But very specific, customized solutions such as IRCTC’s booking application don’t get the full benefits of cloud computing where many customers share the same infrastructure. So whether in the cloud or not, the capacity problem would remain unless the server infrastructure is expanded.

@BroadVision your irctc website is a real nightmare for the general public in India. It is incompatible with the load it has to bear @8am

Yes, it is the 8am peak that is the problem. It is at this time each day that “taktal” tickets are made available for booking and as everyone wants to be first to book a ticket, we see the number of users increase up to 20 times the normal load with everyone trying to book tickets at exactly 8am. Shortly before big public holidays, the peak gets close to a million simultaneous users, and that’s when we see the most complaints.

Broadvision, the company that maintains the irctc website, claims a 99.8% uptime. I think they’re just bluffing!

Actually, this is true (the uptime, that is, not the bluffing!). The site goes down very, very rarely, but as explained earlier, it simply doesn’t have the capacity to handle the extreme peaks.

Hmm, the guys at BroadVision, IRCTC’s solution provider, are at least nice enough to respond to my complaints!

Yes, we do try to. Although…

IRCTC Sucks! N when its done sucking it sucks even more – May the developers rot in hell and with them you too @BroadVision

Ha! Well, how do you respond to that? Honestly, we do understand this frustration, but hopefully what we’ve said earlier explains why sending our developers to rot in hell really wouldn’t solve the problem. Seriously though, we don’t reply to this sort of message. We’re always willing to discuss the problems people are seeing, but we see little benefit for anyone in getting involved in an argument like this.

So, what’s the solution? “More servers” would appear to be the obvious answer. But that is a decision for IRCTC, and not something BroadVision can control. Rest assured that we have made this recommendation. However, as the traffic outside peak hours is significantly lower, we do understand that IRCTC perhaps find it hard to justify the cost of commissioning additional infrastructure to handle occasional overloads. As Mr Tandon notes, the capacity has already increased significantly, but has been matched by equal rises in demand.

We hope that this helps you understand the cause of the occasional problems. We do understand it is frustrating, and we continue to be available to IRCTC to offer our assistance in resolving the problem.

15 thoughts on “Off The Rails

  1. Chithu

    Why don’t you recommend to distribute the load by proposing different booking start time, instead of 8AM for both. ?

    Advance Booking (booking tickets for travel after 4months) &
    Tatkal booking (booking tickets for next day travel)

    say 8AM & 10AM respectively with 2 hours difference.

    Reply
  2. Richard Hughes Post author

    Hi – thanks for your comment. I asked our team in India abotu what you suggest, and this is what they said:

    “These and other suggestions to distribution/ staggering of load have been suggested and discussed. However these are Railways’s Business rules and even IRCTC cannot do anything about it. They are set by the Railway ministry and Railway Board. We are not aware and also we cannot comment on the latest status of these proposals / suggestions, as we are not party to it after the suggestions stage.”

    Reply
  3. viral kothari

    HI BV,

    I am regular user of IRCTC, but to be very honest the server i found is always at its Worst condition in terms of speed.

    Thx
    Viral Kothari

    Reply
    1. Richard Hughes Post author

      Hello, thanks for your comment. I know the server performance is often frustrating, but as I’ve tried to explain in this article, it’s not something that BroadVision have any direct control over. You will have to follow up with IRCTC directly.

      Reply
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  5. Sheel Bhattacharjee (@iSheel95)

    Mr. Hughes,

    I completely understand the fact that it is beyond your scope to handle the issues regarding more servers and the general discontent. However, since you understand the predicament of the Indian people, why don’t you aggressively push for changes in the management of the IRCTC website? Yes, I have read the post above where IRCTC passes the mantle on to the Railway Ministry, and frustratingly enough, that is how it works with most of the things in India! However, one must understand IRCTC is the lifeline for the majority of Indians that cannot afford perpetually rising air fares, and something ought to be done about it.

    In extremely rare occasions (and extremely rare should be emphasised on) though, the IRCTC website has been very zippy. But on a regular basis, it’s definitely a nightmare (especially in circumstances of urgency when a ticket is all you can think of..)!

    Regards,

    SB

    Reply
    1. Richard Hughes Post author

      Hello SB, thanks for your comment. I do understand your frustration, but in answer to this:

      why don’t you aggressively push for changes in the management of the IRCTC website?

      Quite simply, the answer is because IRCTC is our customer, and we have to respect their decisions. We certainly have raised the issue several times.

      Reply
  6. Aravind Bachu

    Why don’t you try suggesting IRCTC to create different time slots for different zones? Indian Railways operate under 16 main zones. Why should a traveler going south should fight with a traveler trying to go north?

    At 8.00 AM, maybe North indian’s can book tatkal tickets, while South Indians can begin booking at 8.30 AM…… distributing different time slots for various parts of India will be much more easier than distributing servers or increasing the servers.

    The main idea is : why take all the million hits at once? tackle 1%-5% at once…..

    Reply
    1. Richard Hughes Post author

      Hi Aravind – Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately BroadVision are not involved in the types of business decisions you describe, so we don’t have the ability to influence this.

      Reply
  7. waitsforsleep (@waitsforsleep)

    I empathize with you guys. Remember the Pinterest folks commenting that “Architecture is doing the right thing when growth can be handled by adding more of the same stuff.”.

    I guess your best bet is to move to a cloud setup where you can dynamically ramp up and down fast(something like what Heroku offers with their dynos). But then again, I would think that the government would be concerned with hosting stuff on servers that are not physically inside Indian borders. “Caught between a rock and a hard place” situation indeed.

    Reply
  8. Abhimanyu M A

    I think there are other areas to improve as well, for example the UX is also terrible (How we can never navigate properly without having to relogin, and the general UI as well), I sometimes pay 20 bucks to cleartrip so that I get a better experience, especially when I only know the destination and dates, and am finding a suitable train.

    Also given that the site already makes significant amount of money, why is it plastered with advertisemets left right and centre?

    Also the mobile version of the site, isn’t very pleasant to use.

    So while I agree that there is obv a server overload issue that I don’t think is the only problem, but then again I haven’t seen the site change even once in the last 2-3 years.

    Reply
    1. Hardik

      To this, someone from Broadvision will reply…
      “Hi Abhimanyu– Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately BroadVision are not involved with these type of decisions of changing the UX.”

      There can be a reason that our railways don’t co-operate in implementing cloud facilities, dividing the load on zonal basis, more servers etc.

      But there is absolutely no valid reason as to why IRCTC’s UI is just ‘pathetic’ to say in plain and frank language. And it has been the same throughout the last so many years…

      Any excuse for UX improvement Mr. Richard Hughes…??

      Reply
      1. Richard Hughes Post author

        Well, it would be inappropriate of me to disclose the detail of conversations between IRCTC and BroadVision, but your “BroadVision will reply…” sentence is fairly accurate.

        I do understand that this is frustrating, but you have to understand that IRCTC are BroadVision’s customer, and to a certain extent “the customer is always right”.

        I also realise that this blog post is now about 18 months old, so I’ve been working with our team in India on an update and intend to publish that soon.

        Reply
  9. sathish

    @Richard Hughes : Nice Explanation from your side …

    {the answer is because IRCTC is our customer, and we have to respect their decisions.}

    NO COMMENTS…….. :(

    Reply
  10. Nisheeth

    Have you considered real-time analytics in your solution design? More the visibility of actual physical world, less likely the people shall blame the performance of the virtual e-commerce platforms.

    Reply

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