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Over the past year, we've seen a couple of examples of well known e-commerce sites being unable to cope with traffic spikes, mainly caused by sales.

This time last year, Debenham's website went down for around 24 hours thanks to the weight of sales traffic, while the Next website had to implement a queuing system in July thanks to a traffic spike.

But what can online retailers do to avoid such problems?

The consequences in lost sales and traffic could be serious, especially at this time of year, and customers will not necessarily wait in queues to get on,  or until the site comes back to life; they will head for a competitor, as Hitwise stats suggest.

I've been asking some UK web hosting firms about the issue...

How can retailers ensure that their websites will cope in case of unusual volumes of traffic? What should they do in advance to avoid this problem?

Craig Martin, CEO of DediPower Managed Hosting:

In a nutshell it is all about planning, testing and communicating with your developers and hosting provider to ensure what you have in place can withstand the rush. 

An important question to ask is ‘what is the highest level of concurrent visits to the site?’ Armed with the predicted traffic, load testing can be used to demonstrate the sites performance through the busy period by simulating the user experience with varying levels of concurrent visitors. 

The results will advise how many users the site can cope with before the user experience is impacted and based on the results, the site’s codebase and underlying infrastructure can be adjusted and tweaked to maintain optimal performance during the busy period.

Dom Monkhouse, MD of Peer 1 UK:

The cause behind most web performance problems is a ‘network bottleneck’, which can be caused by anything from an overloaded server to an overloaded network. It can be prevented by making sure your hosting provider is able to scale up or down very quickly, depending on the expected site traffic. For example, a website selling Christmas trees will have dramatically more hits in December than in July – the site will need to be able to handle this seamlessly. Online retailers need to make sure their hosting providers can provide the flexibility needed. 
 
Another problem is that many e-tailers only have one server and don’t use load-balanced systems. Load-balancing is the process of distributing activity evenly across a network so that no single server is overwhelmed. It is especially important for networks when it’s difficult to predict the number of requests that will be issued to a server. Busy websites typically use two or more web servers so if one starts to get swamped, requests are forwarded to another server with more capacity.
 
There are some free online tools available to test a website – such as www.loadimpact.com. These sites allow the e-tailer to enter the URL and run a free test to tell them how many visitors the site can handle. These tools can simulate behaviour right down to the shopping cart and anticipate situations like receiving ten times the normal level of traffic. The key to ensuring a site will hold up is to test it and fix it before the traffic hits.

Jonathan Bowers, Communication Director at UK Fast:

This is about two things: the bandwidth policy and traffic management of the hosting network they are on, and the actual hosting solution (servers) they have.
 
Many networks are over contended,  just like broadband providers who offer 8mb but actually deliver quite a lot less in reality. This all started when hosting providers offered unlimited bandwidth about four or five years ago. They never suspected that users would grow as quickly as they have, that broadband, Wi Fi, mobile would increase user demand for information in the way it has, or that video, audio and dynamic databases would become the norm. All of this has led to people using much more bandwidth than ever expected on networks that are not designed to cope.
 
Resilience of solution is the second aspect. Just as Northern Rock collapsed in 2007 because it was not scaled for tremendous growth, Debenhams did not prepare adequately for the onslaught that the web would bring. Scaling your hosting for growth is very important, especially if you are in an industry that allows you to forecast how busy you might be.

If they haven't taken steps to deal with traffic and the site is struggling to cope, what, if anything, can retailers do to minimise the disruption?

Craig Martin:

There is no single thing retailers can do as there are multiple solutions depending on their requirements and the situation they are in. For instance: scalable servers for rapid deployment, using sophisticated load balancing to off-load traffic spikes or utilising a CDN (content delivery network) to offset the load associated with the delivery of images and video. 

The key lesson is, work closely with your developers and a solution architect from your hosting company to ensure you have the optimal site for your requirements and understand where your limits are BEFORE they are hit. And last but by no means least, form a continuity plan to react with in the event that the limits are hit to ensure minimal disruption.

Dom Monkhouse:

If your site does encounter a problem and your web hosting company hasn’t called you, call them immediately. They will more than likely be aware of the problem and they will be the people to fix it.
 
You should insist on a fixed timing for when they can get you back online, and ask if they’ll be issuing credit for the downtime. Website downtime is a disaster for e-tailers ahead of busy periods like Christmas, so if it does happen you need to make sure the process is in place to get you back online as soon as possible. A responsible hosting service provider will make sure this happens and will have a compensation policy that protects your business and ensures they have their own incentive to avoid shoddy service delivery in the first place.

Jonathan Bowers:

If retailers are struggling to cope and haven’t put anything in place, they may be able to do two things: access extra bandwidth there and then, but this will be difficult on an over contended network, or to bolt on extra servers that will load balance and/or direct the traffic to the closest data centre.

For example, we have a large travel company client that keeps cookie information about its visitors, which this is then stored on a particular server, the one that is geographically closest to the user. This means that the system must always send that user to the correct server cluster in order to activate the cookie information and create the bespoke page. This is efficient traffic management.

By efficiently directing users in this way, it creates the fastest experience for them. If a site is getting bombarded to a level where it is slowing down the experience, putting something like this in place will keep it as fast as possible for each user.

Graham Charlton

Published 18 November, 2009 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

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Phil Oakley

Some great ideas guys that should be taken on board. God knows how much business Debenhams lost over that period and in the long-term through customer disatisfaction.

For me the most important point is a continuity or contingency plan - page errors and site crashes will happen. Will the customer return to their cart once the site is back up? Probably not. How do you prevent the customer from abandoning as Hitwise suggests they will?

Services like Live Chat or Click 2 Call can help proactively manage a seamless transition from online to offline communication to ensure any queries or concerns are resolved allowing the customer to transact first time.

Would be interested to know other peoples thoughts around possible contingency plans in the event of site outage.

almost 7 years ago

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Gareth Evans

Seems to me that the most important point of all has been missed by all of your contributors.  Predicting what sort of load your website may be under during peak times isn't a precise science.  However most organisations could make a pretty good stab at it.  What they should then do is load test their site to see what happens when 1,000, 10,000 or 100,000 (whatever is appropriate) visitors hit their site.

However good the hosting company is at scaling up and down it wont make any difference if you have, say, a problem with your database design that slows down dramatically when it gets hit with 500 simultaneous requests.

Distributing servers nearer the user is only relevant if you have a global presence.  It wouldn't have helped Debenhams or Next in your example.

And getting some credits to cover the downtime would be peanuts compared to potential lost revenue during the downtime.

Get to a point where you can predict what will happen when visitor numbers hit a peak - don't try and firefight it.

almost 7 years ago

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Mike Stenger

This is all great advice and I would also add having a good shopping cart and purchase backend. You want one that works very well but also one that will maximize the purchase of each customer. There's also still some businesses that use "buy it now" as their text which is just nuts.

Add to cart is best. Having special back end offers help too!

almost 7 years ago

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jersey

Add to cart is best. Having special back end offers help too!

almost 7 years ago

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hostedtel

Once place to support, user recycle their train back to?   Perhaps no.   When Hitwise proposes they are determined, how do you prevent users from abandoning? 

almost 7 years ago

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Deri Jones, CEO at SciVisum.co.uk

What Gareth says. Predicting your traffic peaks is not a precise science, but worth doing. All to often in the web load testing that we do for retailers, there has been a communication gap between the tech and marketing teams; right at the fundamental level of agreeing what metrics to use. For tech teams, it is very easy to say at any one moment in time what the 'concurrent users' in the system are - so that is a metric they prefer. Unfortunately, it is a very misleading metric of the capacity of your system, because: i) any users who got a page within the last X minutes (typcially 30) counts as a concurrent user. So '1 concurrent user' could be someone who just bought 3 products and went through 20 pages and the checkout process: versus another person who just got 1 page 29 minutes ago! ii) it can be gamed by the tech team: increase your session table timeout to 45 minutes from 30, and suddenly your concurrent user value increases 50%! What is needed are capacity metrics that are corelated to the business online: eg * how many people per minute can get through the CheckOut process * likewise: Add to Basket via menu Navigation * Add to Basket via Search All those metrics are User Journey based. Your web site will have _different_ capacity limits for each of those. Only when you have load tested, and know the values for each Journey, can you decide where to spend money to improve things. And the numbers will form your business case for spending by the tech team, to increase capacity: no boss can turn you down if you say the money is to directly increase the 'checkouts per minute' capacity ready ready for the next rush! So next time you ask the tech team if the system can handle the Christmas rush, don't accept a 'concurrent user' value. Insist on them load testing all the above User Journeys - other money-making/customer serving ones (eg if your site does a 'Wheres my Order' feature) Deri

almost 7 years ago

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Deri Jones, CEO at SciVisum.co.uk

What Gareth says.

Predicting your traffic peaks is not a precise science, but worth doing. All to often in the web load testing that we do for retailers, there has been a communication gap between the tech and marketing teams; right at the fundamental level of agreeing what metrics to use.

For tech teams, it is very easy to say at any one moment in time what the 'concurrent users' in the system are - so that is a metric they prefer.

Unfortunately, it is a very misleading metric of the capacity of your system, because:

i) any users who got a page within the last X minutes (typcially 30) counts as a concurrent user. So '1 concurrent user' could be someone who just bought 3 products and went through 20 pages and the checkout process: versus another person who just got 1 page 29 minutes ago!

ii) it can be gamed by the tech team: increase your session table timeout to 45 minutes from 30, and suddenly your concurrent user value increases 50%!

What is needed are capacity metrics that are corelated to the business online: eg
* how many people per minute can get through the CheckOut process
* likewise: Add to Basket via menu Navigation
* Add to Basket via Search

All those metrics are User Journey based. Your web site will have _different_ capacity limits for each of those. Only when you have load tested, and know the values for each Journey, can you decide where to spend money to improve things.

And the numbers will form your business case for spending by the tech team, to increase capacity: no boss can turn you down if you say the money is to directly increase the 'checkouts per minute' capacity ready ready for the next rush!

So next time you ask the tech team if the system can handle the Christmas rush, don't accept a 'concurrent user' value. Insist on them load testing all the above User Journeys - other money-making/customer serving ones (eg if your site does a 'Wheres my Order' feature)

Deri
...And if you need help to get understanding or to get it done....try us at SciVisum.co.uk !

almost 7 years ago

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handbag chooes

Get to a point where you can predict what will happen when visitor numbers hit a peak - don't try and firefight it.

almost 7 years ago

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Deri Jones, CEO at SciVisum.co.uk

Cor blimey, gov <that's english Cockney phrasing, for non-UK folks) you do see funny things when you're web load testing day in and out...

Just load testing a bunch of multi-page User Journeys for a client whose name will be known to all in the UK...

Before we start, we always do a bandwidth test.

And they had 4Mbit/s, burstable to 8.

4.

Just 4.

4 Mbit/s - that's just twice the common domestic broadband rate here of 2Mbit.

So two users grabbing pages at the same time... and bandwidth is full..

Wow. Now they know why user experience measurements we made from web monitoring the last few weeks were so poor.

Still, quick and easy fix.

Now to see what the load test issues on the servers themselves are, with bandwidth now resolved.

Deri

almost 7 years ago

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replica watches

Some great ideas guys that should be taken on board. God knows how much business Debenhams lost over that period and in the long-term through customer disatisfaction.yes just like it

about 6 years ago

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designer watches

In a cold winter, the boys, unfortunately, an accident turned into a vegetative state, doctors said that he can wake up very few chances, but still some probability. Mother directed words, to take care of the son of 5 years.

almost 6 years ago

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Vinyl Siding

Our client was just such a situation (more than 10,000 users a day). The next year, we updated CMS, have a more powerful dedicated server.

almost 6 years ago

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