The Republic of the Philippines has a population of close to 100 million people spread over more than 7,100 islands, and bus travel is a regular event for most Filipinos. As late as 2010, purchasing a bus ticket required a trip to the local bus terminal to consult schedules and purchase fares. Many parts of the country don’t have bus terminals, leaving passengers to wait by the road for passing busses.
Aurora Soriano, founder and CEO of PinoyTravel, saw an opportunity to create a centralized online booking and purchasing system that would make it easier for both residents and travelers to book bus travel. The company was one of ten winners in a national competition sponsored by IdeaSpace, an incubator and accelerator program that supports technology entrepreneurs in the Philippines. The startup used the funding to launch an online bus ticketing service that aggregates the schedules of long-distance bus services. Users can go online or use an Android app to choose their preferred schedule and service and book tickets.
PinoyTravel received the 2013 IT Startup of the Year award from the IT Journalists Association of the Philippines. The startup is based in the City of Makati, Philippines and has nine employees, five of whom form the IT team.
Initially, PinoyTravel relied on a local web hosting company to support its ticketing service to users. However, the web hosting company was unable to provide reliable service during peak traffic periods. PinoyTravel also lacked a scalable solution that would allow it to integrate with mobile operators, payment services, bus companies, and other partners. At the same time, PinoyTravel’s expansion resulted in its being increasingly sensitive to the traffic cycles associated with tourism and daily travel.
“We needed the ability to scale our servers so that they could meet predictable fluctuations in daily usage,” explains Soriano. “We also wanted the option of testing new features and services in a controlled environment before releasing them to our ever-growing customer base.”
Given that PinoyTravel was providing an entirely new service to the Phillipino population, it was difficult to accurately predict growth. As at many startups, the developers at PinoyTravel were optimistic and didn’t want to risk their own business success by retaining an increasingly obsolete physical IT system.
“The old adage of hoping for the best and preparing for the worst is especially true when it comes to startups,” says Soriano, “and scalability would allow us to do this. We knew that we would need to be able to expand in response to rapid consumer uptake or plan for maximium cost-effectiviness if we experienced more gradual growth.”
Why Amazon Web Services
Soriano and her team realized that a cloud solution would be the best option, especially as they needed to build on their initial momentum with a limited budget. They contacted several cloud providers but found that using Amazon Web Services (AWS) would best addressed the company’s challenges. “AWS has a good reputation and low costs. More importantly, they didn’t make us feel small,” Soriano explains. “We were approached by other cloud providers, but the costs were too high and they didn’t understand what startup companies like us go through. AWS, on the other hand, made a concerted effort to understand our challenges and address them effectively.”
Equally important, the company found that, by using AWS, it would have the ability to support various file types and operating systems. “We deliver our services through the PinoyTravel website and a mobile application for Android devices,” explains Michael Briones, solutions and backend developer at PinoyTravel. “The application stack alone is comprised of features from Linux, Apache, Nginx, MySQL, PHP, and Node.js. Even though my team is clearly a big fan of open source technology, it was easy for us integrate our stack with AWS services.”
In planning its move to AWS, PinoyTravel was assisted by the IdeaSpace Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that helps technology entrepreneurs in the Philippines overcome their business challenges. “The Foundation worked with AWS to devise a low-cost package that was easily scalable and perfectly matched our growth pattern,” says Soriano. ”It was a hugely promising development and demonstrated the commitment of AWS to helping us launch our company.”
From development to production, it took PinoyTravel just three weeks in September of 2013 to migrate its infrastructure on to the AWS Cloud. PinoyTravel now runs its travel service in Amazon Virtual Public Cloud (Amazon VPC) to enable full control over its networking environment and uses Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) for scalable compute capacity. Elastic Load Balancing directs traffic to its Amazon EC2 instances for consistent application performance.
“Our biggest concern is scaling up,” says Soriano. “By September 2014, the website was getting 65,000 page views and we’re adding 12,500 users per month.” The company now uses five Amazon EC2 instances, which are supported by Elastic Load Balancing to ensure the optimal distribution of online requests.
The company uses Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) to store 100 GB of static files including voucher templates, terms and agreements, application logs, and code backups. Additionally, PinoyTravel uses Amazon Relational Database Service (Amazon RDS) to flexibly manage its data stores and Amazon CloudFront to deliver content to the website and mobile applications.
The PinoyTravel mobile app’s application programming interface (API) is also hosted on AWS. The app allows PinoyTravel customers to plan their journeys in advance quickly and easily by using their phones to enter an origin and destination, select a travel date, receive confirmation, and pay. It then generates a voucher that customers can provide to the appropriate bus company on their travel date.
Since September 2013, PinoyTravel has run all of its website and mobile application traffic through AWS. In doing so, the company has met its goal of being able to integrate with multiple businesses. The success of both the website and mobile app has been underpinned by Amazon CloudFront, which delivers content to users, Elastic Load Balancing, which evenly distributes incoming traffic, and Amazon S3, which provides scalable storage for PinoyTravel’s proprietary data.
The benefits of moving to the cloud can be seen in the increased number of PinoyTravel’s business associates. Initially, the PinoyTravel website offered booking services for two major routes of one bus company. As of April 2015, the company provides booking services for eight major bus companies including Genesis Philtranco, Five Star, and DLTB, plus two major ferry service providers: 2Go Travel and FastCat.
Using AWS has allowed the company’s developers to design new functions in the cloud and launch them with little fear of system downtime or latency issues. “With the previous provider, our online capacity was limited by the scope of our contract. Now we have access to theoretically limitless scaling,” Briones explains. “We were building applications designed for vertical infrastructure, which means that you scale by adding more CPU or RAM to existing compute resources,” he says. “By taking advantage of AWS online training and documentation, AWS resources, and the Philippine startup community, we learned to to design our systems horizontally and scale by adding additional compute resources.”
Finally, using AWS has helped PinoyTravel shift away from a 24-hour repair cycle and into an environment where computational performance issues can be dealt with almost immediately. “With our previous provider, we knew that in the event of a server outage, we might have to wait a whole day until it was resolved,” says Soriano. “Now we know that if anything unexpected should occur, we can move instantly to an alternate server in a different AWS region. It’s brought enormous peace of mind.”
Looking ahead, the company intends to maintain its relationship with AWS and focus on the continuing development of its popular mobile app. With more than 5,000 downloads already, the app represents an exciting opportunity for the company to create a profitable, long-term relationship with its customers. “To continue developing our mobile application, we’re currently evaluating Amazon Cognito, Amazon Mobile Analytics, Amazon Route 53, Amazon Simple Email Service, and Amazon Simple Notification Service,” says Soriano. “The versatility of AWS services freed us to imagine all sorts of new ventures without worrying that we might lack the computing resources to pursue them.”
“AWS will be the company’s strategic platform now and in the future,” she continues. “We know of bigger companies that use AWS and we take that as a good indication that we made the right choice.”