Ecommerce Scalability is Critical for Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and the Holidays

Ecommerce Scalability

Imagine nailing a dynamite marketing campaign that brings tons of shoppers to your website – only to draw so many shoppers that it crashes the website. ... Talk about being a victim of your own success.

The server capacity that powers an ecommerce website might not be top-of-mind for business owners and decision makers who focus most of their attention on driving sales opportunities, but it quickly becomes top-of-mind when traffic causes the inverse effect of driving down sales.

The ability to scale webserver capacity is hugely critical for peak ecommerce events like Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and other potential website surges between Thanksgiving and the New Year (or any surge on any day throughout the year for that matter). Especially in B2C ecommerce, ecommerce traffic (hopefully) spikes on these days.

But imagine nailing a dynamite marketing campaign that brings tons of shoppers to your website – only to draw so many shoppers that it crashes the website. What a terrible problem to have.

You executed everything required to get a ton of ecommerce shoppers to your site. And now not only are you missing out on all that revenue because of an overburdened website but you’re also leaving a bad taste in the mouths of shoppers who just moments ago were sufficiently impressed to come to the website and buy something.

They won’t be buying anything now. And maybe not in the future, either. Talk about being a victim of your own success, not to mention the embarrassment of it all.

Essent has seen this problem before. Names are being withheld and numbers are rounded to prevent embarrassment, but a few years ago one of our customer’s customers experienced this scenario almost exactly.

Marketing Boom Turns Into Ecommerce Bust

A big popular brand known throughout the world put on a Cyber Monday email marketing blitz. It worked too well.

The company we’re talking about is a big, popular brand known throughout the world. They put on an annual Cyber Monday email marketing blitz hawking branded items from their store, a B2C ecommerce site.

The campaign worked. In fact, it worked so well that all of the shoppers flocking to the website at once crashed the site and hardly anyone was able to buy anything. Even if the mass mailing were staggered to a subset of the market over time, the volume would have still crushed the site.

The website accommodated 3,000 daily visitors on average for a regular day. But with that Cyber Monday campaign, the traffic suddenly jumped more to 30,000 concurrent visitors. Not just visitors per day, but visitors at the same time!

There were an untold number of Denial of Service (DOS) errors on top of that, likely also in the tens of thousands. And those who actually got through to the website experienced load times of more than 30 seconds per page.

The sales numbers for the campaign dropped to their lowest point since the company had started doing the campaign.

The Anatomy of an Ecommerce Traffic Jam

The company had the server capacity it needed for normal day-to-day business, but not for Cyber Monday. It was small-scale topology for a large-scale event.

The problem was that the ecommerce website wasn’t scalable.

It had the server capacity it needed for normal day-to-day business. But it didn’t have the server capacity to handle as many visitors as this Cyber Monday campaign drew in. The ecommerce website had small-scale topology for a large-scale event. With no visibility to any of this, the company was running blind.

Adding insult to injury, even if the company had the number of servers it needed, they didn’t have the architecture to scale. Only one route existed between the users and the web server and only one route existed between the web server and database server. It was aided by a Content Distribution Network, but the CDN offered very little geographical distribution. In short, the topology made a single-lane road out of what needed to be a freeway system and it naturally turned into a traffic jam.

So our customer contacted us to find out how we could help their customer. The request: accommodate up to 1 million website visitors simultaneously.

Creating a Plan that Makes a Million Visitors Happy

It’s not about always having the webserver capacity to handle 1 million visitors. It’s about being able to scale up to that capacity when necessary.

Essent offers a service level capable of accommodating 1 million or more concurrent visitors, and we promised that in the Service Level Agreement. But accommodating 1 million concurrent users ultimately isn’t the solution. Scalability is the solution.

It costs too much to accommodate 1 million concurrent visitors for a website that on most days peaks at less than 3,000 concurrent visitors. It’s not about always having the webserver capacity to handle 1 million visitors. It’s about being able to scale up to that capacity when necessary.

And that requires capacity planning.

Due to the Denial of Service, the customer had incomplete logs and a sketchy view of the mass event: There was no telling how many shoppers tried to get to the site but were blocked by the DOS, so the customer had little idea how much capacity they actually needed.

Essent Ecommerce Consulting Services created an in-depth predictive model that accurately forecasted hourly web traffic. The model illustrated at what hours the visitors were likely to arrive and thus when the additional website investment would need to be incurred.

The Architecture of Record-Setting Ecommerce

We took the single-lane road and turned it into a freeway capable of connecting with as many other freeways as necessary to handle the traffic.

With a predictive model of website traffic, Essent next engineered a "pod” architecture where pods could be added and subtracted as needed to serve the traffic. Each pod consisted of two database servers as well as 1 to 25 web servers (yes, there were a scalable number of web servers within the scalable number of pods) and load balancers that could distribute traffic equally among the web servers so none of them got overloaded.

With the load balancers and multiple web servers, multiple routes now existed between the users and the web servers and between the web servers and the database servers. We also offered an enhanced integrated CDN capable of regional and international distribution. So to go back to the road analogy, we took the single-lane road and turned it into a freeway capable of connecting with as many other freeways as necessary to handle the traffic.

Our customer delivered the solution from us to their big customer, and the big customer promptly broke their Cyber Monday sales record and has done so every year since.

Scalability Makes the Difference Between Catastrophe and Records

The difference that scalable ecommerce can make is the difference between catastrophe and a record-setting campaign.

The moral of the story is that to make the most of sales and marketing efforts, a company needs to take stock of its webserver capacity and be sure it can scale for peak events. Anything else is inviting diminished returns, if not worse.

What should have been a bonanza for this international brand’s Cyber Monday campaign turned into a catastrophe because it wasn’t prepared to scale for ecommerce traffic surges. Tens of thousands of fans who presumably wanted to buy branded gear couldn’t, all because the website couldn’t scale to meet the demand.

The solution is two-fold: first anticipating peak web traffic events, and then having the webserver capacity to accommodate them. The answer isn’t simply to throw capacity at the website, but to create an architecture that scales to the level of traffic so you have the capacity needed when it’s needed.

As we saw in the case of this big brand, the difference that scalable ecommerce can make is the difference between catastrophe and a record-setting campaign.

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