Jun 17, 2012
Christmas 2012 may still seem a long way off but now is the time when retailers need to be getting their websites ready for their busiest time of year. I recently managed to get some time with one of our site performance experts and asked him for some advice on how retailers can ensure tip-top website site performance at peak traffic periods.
What should retailers be doing to prepare for an increase in traffic?
It can take the entire peak-to-peak cycle to prepare properly, so the question could be rephrased “what should retailers have been doing since their last peak?” If they haven’t already done so, carry out a capacity review – looking at the current load on the end-to-end IT solution, reviewing server statistics etc. plus marketing plans and business forecasts.
Depending on the results of this, look for some quick wins, e.g. application or database tuning to provide some breathing space. Identify any bottlenecks, for example, the ten slowest SQL statements. Consider having some cloud or virtualised hardware capacity available to call on if needed.
In general terms, retailers should also consider the following:
- Applying recommended software fixes.
- Putting in place a change freeze period.
- Testing functionality and performance.
- Making functionality configurable (switch on/switch off).
- Optimising the site for peak load.
- Reviewing coding approaches.
- Enabling monitoring.
- Ensuring support teams are ready and escalation points known.
- Establishing a proven disaster recovery capability.
- Validating hosted capability (e.g. bandwidth, firewalls, network throughput) and having additional hardware on standby.
How can retailers manage their expectations in terms of traffic ? What should they be looking at to estimate the figures?
Site monitoring should be aligned to business objectives. Typically a website will be monitored at a high level with three metrics:
- Throughput (requests or sessions per hour)
- Response time
- Order rates
Web analytics systems will usually provide a wealth of information that characterise the increase in traffic.
In terms of traffic it’s not just the numbers that matter, but also the types of activities that visitors are doing on the site. Typically, activities like checkout use more processing power than browsing. Where there is an increase in traffic, is this focussed on a particular part of the site, product or ordering method? This may affect the risk.
It’s also important to think about factors that will affect traffic numbers and patterns, including, marketing campaigns (e.g. TV advertising, promotions), changes in trading patterns (e.g. time-specific and highly targeted promotions that will cause a surge in traffic to a particular page), changes in customer behaviour (e.g. waiting for the launch of a particular product and timing their purchase precisely) and changes in technology (e.g. different devices or browsers).
Is there anything that retailers can “turn on” technically to manage the increased numbers?
Typically many aspects of a site cannot be dynamically modified or have a lead time that prevents catering for an unplanned sudden increase in load. However, there are various tools available for this:
- The “waiting room” concept that content delivery networks (CDNs) provide. If a certain level of load is reached, the CDN will allow customers already on the site to continue using it while arriving customers will be sent a page asking them to wait until the site becomes available. Examples of CDNs include, Akamai, Limelight and Scene7.
- Cloud or virtualised environments. These may be able to allocate more resources on demand when needed, either by allocating idle resource or stealing it temporarily from non critical systems
What else do retailers need to take into consideration when thinking about their website over the Christmas period?
- Make sure that the underlying platform is in good shape – for example, that fix packs are up to date – and that relevant contracts and SLAs are in place.
- Have a Major Incident Process in place so that they can recover the situation quickly if there are unforeseen issues. This needs to be understood by third parties as well as internal stakeholders.
- Plan marketing campaigns to regulate traffic peaks. It can be beneficial to spread any surge load across a period in time, for example, sending out mail shots in small batches over several days rather than all at once.
- Plan holiday time and out of hours support cover over the Christmas break.
- Work out what the minimal set of features is to get the most value. This may mean switching off non critical functionality or non customer impacting processes to maximise resources available to the key requirements.
- Think end-to-end. Are back office systems, 3rd party software services and business processes able to cope?
- Think carefully about the best course of action if/when problems occur. In many cases, once inside the peak period, doing nothing can be the right course of action. Making changes to fix a problem is a logical step to take, but it may unexpectedly cause worse issues.
- Review monitors and alerts and their thresholds. In broad strokes is everything covered in one way or other? Are the alerts thresholded suitably so there are no false positives and only key issues are reported? Are there any new systems that did not have monitoring applied? Are the alerts sent to the right people in a timely manner?
- Review system trends. If a system resource is increasing with traffic will it reach a limit before the peak occurs? If so plan to take corrective action in advance if required.
- Know what information to capture to plan for the next peak. The planning for the next peak should start shortly after this one is finished with a post peak review to capture any actions to take forward before they are forgotten about.
If you’re interesting in finding out how Salmon could help get your website in tip-top shape for Christmas 2012, there’s more information on our Capacity Planning Services here and Performance Optimisation Services here