'Is your site ready for online shoppers?'
'Is your site ready for online shoppers?'
For many online retailers the spike in sales in the weeks running up to Christmas is essential for success. The number of people who choose to shop online for presents, cards and groceries rather than fight through the busy high streets and shopping centres grows every year. But how can online retailers make sure their websites can take the strain and ensure no one struggles to place an order?
Whether you sell something extremely rare or the must-have Christmas toy, even a small drop in performance is likely to cause customers to go elsewhere.
Of course it is also important to realise that Christmas is just one stress point for websites. New promotions, a publicity splash or new product lines will all drive extra traffic. So, here are six steps to help your website through demanding times.
1. Plan for peaks, not averages.
A fundamental step in forward planning to ready your website for activity surges is to get to know your traffic so you can make educated forecasts about future patterns and peaks. And be sure to look at the ratios of people browsing versus people converting, as all traffic is not equal in terms of its impact on servers and systems; particularly as visitors move from unsecure browsing to an encrypted transaction. A surprising yet common mistake is to plan for averages rather than spikes.
If online vendors are not prepared for absolute peak usage, they will lose business.
2. Bigger is not always better.
Another common misconception is to match expected traffic to server size. While rushing out and buying a bigger server might work for some websites, the strategy doesn't make sense for e-commerce and other transactional sites, which tend to be connection-intensive rather than processor-intensive as shoppers browse. It's better to have a team of lower performing servers instead of one larger, high-performance machine to support concurrency of connections.
Virtualisation is one way to do this, enabling you to segment your physical server host into lots of virtual machines, or virtual private servers, so that you can get as much out of those resources as possible.
3. Achieve Balance.
If you take the multiple server approach, you need to ensure usage is properly distributed across those machines. Load balancers and application delivery controllers (ADCs) were once big-ticket purchases, but now vendors have driven costs down from tens of thousands of pounds to low four figures. There are traditional hardware appliances as well as virtual ADCs designed to be the traffic cops that manage shoppers through your web store by figuring out which of the servers can provide them with the best possible experience.
4. The security certificate problem.
Security and consumer confidence are obviously paramount. Many e-commerce sites have upgraded to 2048-bit SSL encryption without considering the increased demands on their infrastructure and the huge impact that stronger encryption has on the performance of their servers. It can increase performance requirements on a server as much as six fold - so planning for this is essential.
Co-locating servers is still a good practice if you can afford to do so. Virtualization, among other factors, has made the benefits of co-location more accessible for smaller companies. The main benefit is that should one resource become overwhelmed or experience a critical problem, the proper setup can enable a company to dynamically move all affected users to a different, healthy resource without disrupting business.
6. Have a backup plan.
Even if you have a strong backup and recovery plan, chances are that failures will happen at the worst possible time when any downtime, even with everything backed up, is going to have a negative impact. Think about a 'pre-emptive plan' to anticipate extreme situations and know what to do if your systems become deluged by late Christmas shoppers. For example, one possible plan may be flex out to Amazon Web Services or another cloud platform. Even with the best preparation, it is always good to plan for more traffic than you can handle if you want to be sure of a happy Christmas.