Managing a site on Black Friday

Happy Black Friday, everyone. Go on, get them deals. Go’on ge’um! Meanwhile, Sascha Giese, Head Geek at enterprise software developer SolarWinds shares his insight into the potential pitfalls and opportunities of eCommerce on one of the biggest shopping days of the year. 

As we move closer to the holidays, the Black Friday promotions are in full swing—and, as Andy Williams said, “it’s the most wonderful time of the year.” But is it? For consumers, yes; they can tick items off their lists and purchase them at discounted prices, online and in the comfort of their own homes. While this is great for the end user, the web performance team behind the retail sites we know and love can have a different experience.

Black Friday is a vital day for the retail industry in the U.K.—in fact, online shoppers spent £1.49bn last year alone, an increase on the £1.39bn spent online the previous year. As the event continues to grow year-on-year, so does the pressure to ensure retailers’ websites can stay afloat no matter what’s thrown at them on the busiest days of the year.

During this critical shopping event, VISA predicts retailers have to manage over 8.5mn transactions per minute—and, if a technical issue surfaces on the day, e-commerce businesses risk lost revenue, customer dissatisfaction, and reputational damage. Retailers behind the biggest holiday web fails are sure to make national headlines—for all the wrong reasons. With the risk of a web outage high due to traffic overload, the pressure is on for IT pros to get ahead of the upcoming sales rush to ensure their businesses capitalise on this vital opportunity. For the pros, the message is simple: fail to prepare, prepare to fail. So, what are some of my critical dos and don’ts?

Don’t Fall Victim to the Same Mistakes

Spikes in web traffic can majorly disrupt a site during Black Friday, Cyber Monday, or any promotional retail event. While traffic might typically be gradual and consistent, a day like Black Friday can bring severe spikes, which in the worst-case scenario can bring sites down for hours.

Since Black Friday made its way across the Atlantic, we’ve seen large brands such as John Lewis, Apple, Amazon, and GAME experience outages during heavy traffic periods. And this promotional day isn’t the only one causing issues for retailers across the world. Singles Day in China and, closer to home, Cyber Monday, Prime Day, Boxing Day, and Easter Sunday have all been known as calendar days with the most potential for retailer success and at the same time, e-commerce failure. Handmade cosmetics company Lush learned the hard way when it experienced outages on Boxing Day, the U.K.’s biggest shopping day of the year.

To better ramp up in the face of these huge traffic spikes, retailers must learn from the past and avoid making the same mistakes. Cloud solutions offer greater flexibility and the ability to dynamically add more resources as site traffic climbs. Lush did exactly this, choosing to migrate its e-commerce platform to scalable infrastructure capable of handling increased traffic without compromising stability. While a move like this can be costly in the short-term, IT pros can reap the rewards in the long run. In addition to preventing outages, the move reduced their infrastructure hosting costs by 40%.

Do Prioritise Complete Visibility

To make sure they’re wringing every drop of value and support from their IT environments, IT and web-performance-focused professionals should ensure they have monitoring processes and tools. These should require little investment (time and money) from the stretch web team but provide intuitive and insightful alerts and recommendations to help them know when to spring into action.

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On a day like Black Friday, when websites experience unprecedented levels of traffic, IT pros need to maintain and troubleshoot multiple metrics—website speeds, possible downtime, user experience issues. It’s impossible to stay on top of all of these at once and still make sure “the day job” gets done. Monitoring tools can help, but only if they can offer a single view of multiple applications from varying locations—otherwise, you’re still left swivelling in your chair from one monitor to another making sure nothing’s broken.

Don’t Let Others Spoil the Fun

At any busy time, be it a new product launch or sales window, there’s a risk of someone out there trying to spoil the party. Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks are rife during peak periods, as malicious attackers bring down sites—flooding them with an unprecedented amount of traffic from compromised computers systems or botnets. Having full visibility and the ability to investigate traffic discrepancies with network performance management is key.

While sometimes difficult to pre-empt, preventing a DDoS attack can be achieved by responding in real time with rule-based events to implement firewalls, authentication services, or even block IP addresses demonstrating suspicious activity.

Do Think Situationally

Moving operations to the cloud is not always a clear option for some businesses. While it can result in cost savings for large corporations that spend big on data centres, some smaller, even seasonal businesses, might want to forgo the investment due to scale. Serverless computing is a great option for businesses wanting to drive traffic to their site in busy retail periods, but without the computer power to cope.

Serverless is a pay-as-you-go approach and removes the need to purchase and maintain the servers to carry out the required computation. If a company deals with an average of 1,000 operations a day but experiences an increase of ten times as much during events like Black Friday, it can pay only for what it needs at the time—mitigating the unnecessary expenditure of under-utilising IT during the rest of the year.

Looking Ahead

Online traffic is only going to continue to increase each holiday season. Fortunately for us, now we can see it coming and we know what calendar dates are going to require a little extra support. So, preparation is key. IT pros need the right solutions in place to help them in their day-to-day roles, to not only monitor for potential issues, but also resolve an outage quickly and efficiently, with minimum damage to the user experience.

In today’s digital era, IT pros need to invest in systems early. This Black Friday, take note of what worked and what didn’t, so you can reevaluate how you approach this time next year. Can your infrastructure scale the way you need it to? Do you have the right support within the team? Are there tools and processes that can help? Even an outage of only a few minutes can cause a steep loss in sales and customer loyalty—it’s a risk no business needs to take. Small changes to the way you approach these promotional holidays will ensure IT pros are prepared for the busiest and most lucrative days of the financial year.

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