Will the Cloud Be Comic-Con’s Superhero?

After two massive server crashes in November wrecked online ticket-sale launches and infuriated hopeful badgeholders, Comic-Con International has moved its ticketing engine to the cloud in anticipation of its third attempt to sell badges for this summer’s event. In an attempt to ensure the servers keep up under extreme traffic, Comic-Con has partnered with Philadelphia-based startup TicketLeap, which moved its platform to Amazon Web Services (s amzn) in August 2010. If all goes well when tickets go on sale at 9 a.m. PST tomorrow, it will be a huge proving point for the TicketLeap platform, and further validation for AWS and cloud computing, in general.

For TicketLeap, the decision to utilize the cloud wasn’t immediate, but has paid off in spades. According to VP of Engineering Keith Fitzgerald, TicketLeap’s initial setup was a .NET application running with a traditional hosting provider, but a series of planned upgrades in January 2010 made the team consider alternatives, including AWS, which Fitzgerald had become familiar with during a stint at Razorfish. After determining it would be faster to rewrite the entire application and move it to AWS rather than try to crowbar new features into the old app, Fitzgerald and his team opted for the cloud. It also was important, he added, that cloud computing kept system administrator duties “off our plate” so the company could focus its energies on improving the user experiences.

TicketLeap’s new Python-based platform utilizes a variety of AWS services, including EC2, Simple Storage Service (S3), CloudFront (AWS’s CDN), Auto-Scaling and, perhaps most importantly, Relational Database Service (RDS). Fitzgerald says TicketLeap usually runs between 8 and 16 web servers, but also runs multiples databases in RDS that utilize the service’s whopping High-Memory Quadruple Extra Large DB Instances. The flexible new architecture has paid off already, especially for New Year’s Eve events. Knowing most partygoers purchase their tickets only a few days before Dec. 31, Fitzgerald explained, TicketLeap was able to scale out its infrastructure to handle that anticipated load, then shrink it back down once the holiday was over. Although AWS offers the ability to scale reactively to unexpected traffic spikes, Fitzgerald said most of TicketLeap’s scaling is proactive in anticipation of big events.

Comic-Con is just such a case. In the past, Comic-Con’s online ticket sales were a casual affair where fans learned tickets were on sale via word of mouth or visits to the site, and purchases trickled in for months. But that all changed when sale dates were announced in advance, and Event Planning International Corporation’s (EPIC) infrastructure just wasn’t designed to handle the load of tens to hundreds of thousands of comic book and movie fans trying to buy tickets before they were gone. So, since inking the deal with Comic-Con in late 2010, Fitzgerald said, TicketLeap has been working to ensure its AWS-based infrastructure can handle the traffic.

The results thus far have been promising. During a limited test sale in December, Comic-Con sold 1,000 badges in just a minute, but the web servers had to handle the traffic of 50,000 fans competing for them. TicketLeap CEO Chris Stanchak described the test run as a success — the system didn’t crash, after all — but noted there were a few glitches that have since been worked out. According to Fitzgerald, part of the credit belongs to fellow AWS-hosted startup BrowserMob, which leverages cheap VMs on Amazon EC2 to simulate the system load of huge numbers of individual users. Fitzgerald said TicketLeap was happy to learn that the infrastructure it has in place for Comic-Con can handle 50,000 requests per minute on a single web server. The company plans to have 64 web servers ready to go tomorrow morning.

At this point, AWS doesn’t need to prove itself, but a successful sale tomorrow could be huge for TicketLeap, which Stanchak describes as “Ticketmaster for everybody [who] doesn’t want to use Ticketmaster.” A big point of differentiation is that TicketLeap encourages sharing information about events via social media, so ticket buyers can invite their friends or communicate with fellow attendees (this page for a Seth Godin practicum is a prime example). It’s Stanchak’s belief that the future of ticket sales will be friends telling friends and followers about upcoming events, as opposed to the current model of big marketing campaigns and individuals searching sites to see what’s coming up in their cities.

TicketLeap has done well with its approach thus far, but hasn’t faced a challenge like Comic-Con. If its cloud infrastructure holds up, it will have a compelling story to tell — that of a less-expensive, more-social alternative to Ticketmaster that can handle any event thrown at it.

Image courtesy of Flickr user kerryvaughan.

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