Christopher Hill is a Solutions Architect for Chicago-based Hostway Corporation, a provider of cloud, managed and hybrid hosting services with 600,000 customers worldwide.
If A Christmas Carol were updated for the digital age, and Scrooge were a retailer with an online store, the old miser might have yet another reason to hate the holidays: memories of website crashes past that cut into his Christmas profits. He would be in good company, considering the lumps of coal left last year for even some of the largest e-commerce stores.
Even with experienced IT managers charged with steeling their Internet properties against the onslaught of holiday traffic, dozens of major retail sites crashed under the seasonal load last year. Retail giant Walmart’s site was one of the first to cave under the enormous pressure of Black Friday traffic, delivering broken checkout pages, empty shopping carts and login errors to irate shoppers who saw their items go out of stock before they could make a purchase. Meanwhile, VictoriasSecret.com saw an 80-minute Black Friday interruption, and American Eagle Outfitters’ site was down for eight hours over the critical Thanksgiving holiday weekend. ToysRUs.com frustrated pressured parents with more than 30 minutes of downtime on Cyber Monday alone.
According to website monitor Panopta’s 2011 Holiday eCommerce Availability Index, which tracks total uptime throughout the six-week shopping frenzy, video game renter and retailer Gamefly.com was offline for more than 13 hours during the season. Adding insult to injury, this abysmal performance was nearly 5 hours worse than its 2010 downtime. Meanwhile, Brookstone.com, HarryandDavid.com and Blockbuster.com also ranked in the top five for worst availability, with holiday downtime at both Sears.com and Kmart.com skyrocketing from just 2 minutes in 2010 to nearly 8 hours in 2011.
For small and midsize retailers, these e-calamities serve as a stark reminder of the need to be prepared for a surge in traffic at any time – holiday or otherwise. No one wants to get caught with their website down at precisely the moment when the money is rolling in, considering that shoppers can take their credit cards elsewhere with the click of a mouse.
How can you be sure that your website won’t buckle under pressure? Here are four core strategies for bulletproofing your site while also keeping it secure.
Move to the Cloud
If you’re outsourcing your website hosting services – and almost all businesses do – choosing a newer cloud hosting model where you’re sharing servers and other resources with a larger pool of companies makes it possible to instantly add computing power and bandwidth to accommodate traffic spikes, remove capacity when the river of business shrivels to a rivulet, and – as with electricity – pay only for what you use.
If your web host does not offer Payment Card Industry (PCI) protection to secure credit card transactions, segregate your payment gateway on dedicated gear to be sure that you don’t inadvertently expose yourself to violations of the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard and resultant fines. But by keeping your shopping site in the public cloud, you avoid getting locked into a 12-month colocation or managed hosting contract for extra servers that you won’t need 10 months of the year. And you don’t incur the considerable expense of buying, building and managing the infrastructure yourself.
Build It Big
As long as you’re in the cloud – hitching a ride on your service provider’s infrastructure instead of mortgaging your business to pay for your own – you can afford to provision more servers than you think you need, and then adjust when the traffic patterns become clear. If you think you need 10 servers, start with 15 or 20 instead. If you need the extras, they’ll typically cost you less than 15 or 20 cents an hour per virtual server so you’re not going to break the bank by overbuilding.
Think of it as insurance. If your Google ad campaign catches fire, your YouTube video goes viral, or you hit the PR jackpot with a celebrity wearing your wrap bracelet on Good Morning America, you will be able to capture those sales instead of turning customers away because your infrastructure is not large enough to handle them all.
Lighten Your Landing Pages
Whether it’s your home page or special pages where visitors enter when they click on your Google ads or hyperlinks in promotional emails, these are the pages that get the most hits. Therefore, they suck up the lion’s share of your bandwidth. They need to load fast enough that shoppers won’t leave before you’ve had a chance to hook them – studies show that 40% of users will abandon a web page if it takes more than three seconds to load – so you can’t fill every pixel of the screen with graphics. Yet you need compelling content to grab customers’ interest when the pages DO load, or your prospects will leave for greener shopping pastures.
The goal is to make your landing pages as light as possible without losing traffic. It’s a delicate balancing act for your web design team, but one that can play an important role in keeping your website up and running during crunch times.
Use a Content Delivery Network
Your web pages will load faster, your video will stream better, and your shopping cart will process more efficiently, if you offload catalog images and other graphics to a content delivery network (also called content distribution network or CDN).
Available either from your web hosting provider, standalone third-party services or in some cases telecommunications service providers, CDNs have servers around the world that can upload images on a geographic basis as visitors browse your site. If a shopper is in Miami and there is a CDN node in Jacksonville, your product photos will be sent from the nearby node as shoppers request information, instead of from your web host’s data center in Chicago (or wherever). That not only shortens the travel distance, but also distributes the load to multiple nodes to avoid slowdowns or bottlenecks during peak shopping hours.
Start planning now so that you’ll be ready for Cyber Monday 2012, the next time you run a 2-for-1 promotion, or any other bounce in business. Maybe you’ll be like one company we know that got word of a major national TV appearance the week before the show was to air. Instead of scrambling to expand their dedicated hosting environment, they took advantage of the rapid deployment and easy scalability of the cloud to prepare for the traffic tsunami. When it hit, they racked up $70,000 in sales in one day. It wasn’t Christmas, but it felt like it.
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