Auction software demonstrates its mettle as mission critical, multi-user application

Every Saturday, the Auction Park in Central California hosts approximately 500 registered bidders for an auction that typically includes 300 or more automobiles and several thousand lot-items including tools, equipment, furniture, electronics, and jewelry, among others.

These items are sold simultaneously from four to five separate auction rings in interior and exterior locations scattered across the 22-acre facility.  After the auction begins, a lot will be sold in each ring every thirty seconds or so; this means a new sale is entered every 6 to 8 seconds.

Behind the scenes, sophisticated auction software (SOLD II, from New York-based Proven Software) and off-the-shelf hardware are making this all possible.  At Ernst and Associates, the company behind the Auction Park, this involves a long range wireless network with approximately 40 computer stations, divided between clerking stations handling the live bidding at each ring, 10 or more registration stations and 20-30 cashiers for quick and immediate check out of purchased items.

At auction houses across North America, this type of real-time, mission critical, multi-user environment is the norm.  Even seemingly less sophisticated operations with 2 to 3 users operating a single ring must deal with the underlying time pressures of clerking, registering and cashiering with a simultaneity that is rare, even in the business computing world.
   
Small businesses in a multi-billion dollar industry

Not every auction house is a Christies or Sotheby’s.  Most auction firms are, in fact, small or even family-run businesses.  Although the value of the items sold at auction equates to billions of dollars each year, these tight-knit groups survive on a percentage of the sales gross.  Even a company like Ernst and Associates, though considered a large auction house in many respects, qualifies as a small business. 
   
For these businesses operating on a budget, the concept of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for sophisticated, custom-built computer hardware and software systems is simply not possible.  Instead, they must utilize existing, off-the shelf solutions that are easier on the pocketbook, yet meet the mission critical, multi-user requirements of what many call the ultimate high-wire act: auction day.

Avoiding the high wire act

“Painting a picture of the complexity of activity and the real time pressures during an auction event is nearly impossible without going into great detail,” states Carl Borning, president of Proven Software and co-author of SOLD II, the auction software used by Ernst and Associates at the Auction Park.  “However, in its broadest strokes, auction software must smoothly manage the ‘big three’ elements of any event – registration, clerking and cashiering.”

Registration

Registration is self-explanatory.  Although pre-registration is standard, the ability to handle any and all comers at the door and throughout the entire event is critical. 

Clerking

During the live bidding, a clerk assigned to an auctioneer is charged with entering the winning bid and the bidder number.  As they clerk each sale, it must be integrated in a secure manner accurately, efficiently and immediately.

Checking out

When a customer is ready to pay after winning an item at the auction, they want to be able to check out quickly and at any time during the event.  Therefore, auction firms often have multiple cashiering stations for quick check out.  A fully integrated software system allows a bidder to literally run to the cashier station after winning an item and check out without delay. 

“Now take all these elements happening at the same time and add in the requirements of the physical location,” explains Borning.  “Auctions are performed on site at the company’s location and off site – for example, a convention center or a seller’s location; items are sold within a showroom and also, as in the case of automobiles or heavy equipment, in an outdoor lot. When multiple rings, or auctions, are occurring simultaneously, the system has to accommodate multiple remote locations while allowing the bidder to cash out at any station on the property.”

And this still only scratches the surface.

“I can’t think of a more complex, multi-faceted, time sensitive situation than a live auction,” says Houston.  “Without the best software and reliable hardware to manage all the elements smoothly, it would be completely unmanageable.” 

Multi-User Computing

If real time, multi-user computing sounds like a given when it comes to software and operating systems, it is anything but.  Consider that most end users never use any multi-user applications  A true multi-user application requires that 2 or more users can simultaneously add or edit records in the very same data files.  Those few other multi-user applications that meet this requirement, such as some accounting programs, seldom face the same real time demands and challenges that an auction program must meet.  It’s the marriage of well written multi-user application programs and the operating system that make this possible.

“We have always looked for the proper tools to meet the needs or our clients and the choice of operating systems is among the most basic of those requirements," says Borning. 

SOLD II was introduced as the first multi-user auction management system in 1982 by Proven Software of Manlius, NY.  The product is currently utilized by thousands of auction firms throughout North America and abroad. 

“As technology has evolved, so have the options we could offer to our clients,” adds Borning.  “We began with Unix systems over 20 years ago as the only viable operating system to support the multi-user requirements of our clients. Windows networking was deficient in this regard until the release of NT and later XP.  Until that time, correct record locking was absent.  This capability is absolutely essential to avoid user collisions in the same data records and the subsequent file damage that can cause.”
 
Today, SOLD II is available for  Windows platforms (XP or later) as well as for the multi-user friendly Linux server platform.  It is also available as a secured service via the Internet (SOLDII.net).

The Evolution of Auction Firms and the Software

Rewind twenty years ago and Ernst & Associates bares little resemblance to the auction firm it is today.   

“We are a completely different company than we were then,” says Toby Houston, owner of Ernst and Associates.  “When we first started, we were selling once a month.  We auctioned off maybe 15-20 cars, and perhaps 100 lot items.”

Since the initial purchase of the product in 1987, Houston has witnessed the software develop and evolve and her company has embraced many of SOLD II’s innovations.  In addition to being the first truly multi-user and scalable auction system, SOLD II provided the industry’s first wireless clerking system (online clerking from mobile auction blocks) and was the first to offer automated registration from drivers’ licenses.

The upgrade to wireless technology bears mentioning because it allowed Ernst and Associates to adopt mobile clerking across the Auction Park’s 22 acres.  Their wireless system uses the industrial-grade RF (radio frequency) needed for long distances or where barriers (such as structures) exist.
   
According to Houston, the fact that the software and the technology evolved with her company over time is a major reason that she hasn’t considered other software options. 

“The software literally grew with us,” says Houston, whose system now runs on the Linux platform and includes long-range wireless RF capabilities.  “We were not hampered or stopped in our growth at any point.  They are constantly on the look-out for affordable new technologies and innovations that anticipate our evolving needs,” she adds.

For more information about SOLD II from Proven Software, Inc., visit www.soldii.com or call 800-487-6532.  Write to Proven Software, Inc., PO Box 476, Manlius, NY 13104.

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