insights | 26.10.2018

The art of Peak Time Performance Preparation for Black Friday and Cyber Monday

Black friday and cyber Monday

With the advent of Black Friday and Cyber Monday this year, it seems easy to forget that these are relatively new imports from the US. Both days have gone down well with the public though, with Black Friday alone generating colossal amounts of money. Around £7billion in online sales alone in the UK were recorded for Black Friday with marketers and the British public embracing the days with equal enthusiasm. The phenomenon has also spread quickly to Europe, Asia and beyond.

It is entirely possible, though, that online retailers will miss out on all the fun, because they haven’t given enough thought to how their web servers will cope with the added stress that the increased demand will cause by a wave of shoppers, eager to grab the bargains on offer from their site.

Far too many retailers focus on creating a standout, user friendly site that engages the audience and directs them towards the bargains that are currently available, but subsequently neglect to invest in the back-end infrastructure that runs it all. Consequently, without the corresponding investment, brands are finding themselves left with a website that will slow down, or even grind to a halt when Black Friday and Cyber Monday hit. This will have several consequences for the retailer, not least of which will be a marked reduction in potential sales, an increase in frustrated shoppers complaining to support, and damage to their online reputation which could spread to their overall reputation as a quality retailer.

Get a good server

Every eCommerce infrastructure will have a web server at the heart. This will need to function well at every level, including peak times, so it’s critical that a retailer has a basic understanding of their servers’ available resource, from disk space, memory availability and CPU usage. They should at least be familiar with how much load their server is coping with and what the free resources are above possible spikes in users.

Knowing what the average load is on the site is not sufficient. If, for example, your site has an average load of 35%, this would mean that there is 65% available for peak times. This would reduce to say 10% at peak times when 90% of the server resources are being used by those keen shoppers on their lunch hour or sat on their tablet in front of the tv after dinner. Anything over 90% of capacity will cause process queueing to begin on the server and the website will slow down considerably. Small load peaks can usually be absorbed, but during Black Friday, these peaks can end up being continuous, potentially grinding everything to a halt as each user waits for server resources to become available.

Tweaking server performance

By now you’re going to be wondering how to reduce the impact of these load spikes and improve the performance of the server. There are several options available to do this. Getting the managing software in order is the first step – install patches, fix software errors and optimise the overall structure. All this should make a good inroad on reducing excess overhead on the server as unnecessary software operations are reduced. From the other side, review and tune effectively the server stack configuration. This on its own has the potential to save several thousands of pounds in excessive hosting costs and, at the same time, improve the site’s speed and reliability.

It would also be worth investigating intelligent website caching, which can reduce server load by as much as 50%. Services such as CloudFlare or KeyCDN are fairly straightforward to implement and can have a profound impact on the overall reliability of the site.

Another option to consider is a queuing system. If the customer is in a position where they are happy to wait, such as online ticket purchases for example, it can be ideal, especially if these peaks are only going to happen a couple of times a year.

It may also be worth considering upgrading your server. Specifications are constantly improving so it’s definitely worth considering upgrading to get more memory, faster CPU etc. You need to consider though that this option may be tied in to a 12-month commitment so it’s important to consider when this option should be implemented. Any commitment longer than this should be avoided where possible though, otherwise you could find yourself being left behind the competition.

Operating on a shared server makes it harder to manage issues with peaks in load, but website caching and bot blocking can be used to reduce the impact. A good web development agency like Xigen, would be able to advise how this could be implemented, along with other techniques for improving the server performance as well. Having a server in the cloud may have some advantages, but it still doesn’t guarantee that your site won’t have similar problems to those already mentioned. It’s very likely that your cloud server is limited in the same way as a physical one.

Spread the load

It seems obvious that focussing your marketing campaigns to encourage your buyers to the bargains on Black Friday is going to cause an increase of sales. After all, that’s the whole point isn’t it? This is also going to cause an increase in load on the server however, which can slow it right down. It may be worth considering spreading your marketing campaigns and promotion periods out over longer periods to relieve pressure on the server.

Another often overlooked load on the server is the reporting. Every salesperson wants to keep their fingers on the pulse and know how sales are going so that they can nudge consumers with additional offers on slow movers. A heavy reporting run at a peak time though, is going to use resources on the server that could be better utilised by the consumer. Don’t initiate big application code changes either, it could all end in tears if you do!

Get good support

Should the worst happen, it’s vital that there’s someone available to fix it as soon as possible. If your website dies horribly or suffers other serious problems, you need to know that you can pick up a phone to the server hosting company and get it resolved as quickly as possible. It’s very likely that you’ll need a service level agreement in place for your website and hosting platform, just so that you can, should the worst happen, pick up that phone at 2am and get any major problem fixed.

Black Friday and Cyber Monday are probably the biggest online shopping periods in the retailer’s year and with both fast approaching, it’s vital that the infrastructure for the back-end is ready and able to cope with the expected demand. Extremely high peaks in visitor numbers and exceptional revenue opportunities are on offer over those two days for those who are properly prepared.

To find out more about peak time performance, get in touch today for a chat with one of our eCommerce development experts.

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