Scream under the hammer

Selling for a record $119.92M, a pastel of Edvard Munch’s composition The Scream went under the hammer last night at Sotheby’s in New York – surpassing the experts’ estimates and becoming the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction.

From a web trading perspective, the sale was a little more predictable: in that the most interesting bit of it happened under an ecommerce brownout – a challenge which I should add is by no means unique to Sotheby’s. In fact, it’s one faced by banks and other financial firms who actually rely upon this sort of electronic bidding as a crucial component of their business.

After all, how do you capacity-plan for a system that, once every so often, attracts user-numbers two or three orders of magnitude greater than an average daily peak? Answer: with some difficulty, still – but, nowadays, with increasing practicality.

Elastic server-capacity (courtesy of hosting partners who can scale on demand) solves part of the problem; having suitably robust and high-performance web streaming/distribution technology in place solves another. Yet together these form only part of the picture; any system will eventually reach its ceiling, and questions around graceful degradation of service need to be addressed.

For example, in what sequence will a platform scale back the services it attempts to provide to users, in order to continue to provide a usable service overall? How will it keep users informed of any prevailing capacity-issues, in a way that cultivates understanding and patience, rather than repeated hitting of the refresh button? (which can only exacerbate the problem)

The winning bid came by phone – I don’t expect Sotheby’s was expecting many oligarchs’ representatives to be bidding via their computers – yet in a world where use of web trading technology is on a one-way upwards trend, the importance of these systems staying useful even at times of ultra-peak activity can only increase.

This would appear to be especially true in finance, but (increasingly) in closely comparable domains, such as auctions – whether art, vehicular, or otherwise.

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