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The importance of scalability in online auctions

“We just had a most amazing, shocking experience occur in our great city. We are shouting, dancing, rejoicing and celebrating[…]We have made history.” These are the words of Rev. Cecil Williams, founder of San Francisco anti-poverty charity The Glide Foundation. The organisation’s annual online auction on eBay raised record funds this year – largely thanks to a jaw-dropping $3,456,789 bid for the opportunity to take lunch with the “Oracle of Omaha” Warren Buffett.

This is an improvement on the previous year, where hedge fund manager Ted Weschler paid $2.63 million to have lunch with the billionaire. Buffett has been a fervent supporter of the charity ever since he was introduced to Rev. Williams by his late wife Susan, and the charity has auctioned lunch with Buffett for each of the past 13 years. The lunches have raised over $14 million in total. As in previous years, bidding reached its high point in the last hour of the auction, with the price rocketing from $410,000 at the end of the penultimate day of the auction to $1 million at the beginning of the last hour, to the final $3.46 million.

Scalability

This auction illustrates the importance of scalability in online auctions. Online auctions tend to see a dramatic surge in bidding towards the end of an auction rather than sustained bidding throughout. Therefore it’s important that auction sites are fully able to withstand rapid bidding patterns. Failure to do so can be disastrous.

Can you imagine if the auction had experienced technical difficulties in the final hour? Millions of dollars in funds could potentially have been lost. Over the years we’ve found out and experienced the sort of dangers that can come from changes in the volume of bidding activity and have fully adapted our system to deal with them. In the past we’ve held auctions with in excess of 500 lots. As auctions of this size approach their climax, the system receives thousands of bids over the last three hours of the auction. That’s an average of about 1 bid every 2.7 seconds.

Our auction system is highly scalable and is designed to be able to cope with high volumes of bidding from a wide audience. Simultaneous bids present no problem for us, the system being easily able to determine in which order the bids are placed. Our platform has also been designed to operate in failover mode if required. This means we can provide hosting that is able to deal with server failures – if a hardware failure occurs in one part of the system then another machine will take up the operation of that which has failed.

Real time bidding

Disruption caused from constantly having to refresh a page can be a huge irritation for bidders during the final stages of an auction, where every second is vital. The last thing bidders want is to be distracted from the auction at a crucial moment. We’ve designed our websites to automatically update every three seconds, and over the course of 2012 we will be moving towards true real time updates. This all means there is no longer any need for bidders to manually reload pages. Bidding can continue without any disruptions, allowing bidders to respond immediately to changes in the auction and to place bids in rapid succession if necessary.

You can read more about the features of our auction system here.

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