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5 Things Retailers Can Do Now to Avoid a Cyber Monday Disaster

By Arijit Mukherji
Oct 29, 2019 10:18 AM PT
investing in the observability of retail systems is excellent preparation for holiday traffic spikes

We may just be turning the calendar to November, but if you're like most retailers, you're already deep into planning for the gift-giving season. Black Friday and Cyber Monday are circled and starred as you anticipate, with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, the spike in sales and massive increase in traffic to your website and mobile app -- with good reason.

Seventy-five percent of respondents to a new survey by online savings platform RetailMeNot plan to shop online this holiday season, up from 68 percent last year. Nearly half of Black Friday shoppers surveyed intend to conduct the majority of their shopping from their homes this season.

Your worst nightmare is that your website or app will slow to a crawl -- or worse, crash completely -- on Black Friday, Cyber Monday or both. The harsh reality is that the question is not if you'll experience performance issues, but rather when you will. The spikes in traffic on these important days only increase the likelihood that you'll face a digital crisis.

How can you minimize the damage and avoid a complete disaster? Here are five things you can do today to keep your website and mobile app humming along -- and sales running smoothly -- through the holiday season.

1. Get a Baseline

Are your systems observable, and do you have insight into how they are behaving in real time? Do you know the typical traffic levels, taking into account seasonality and historical spikes, that stress your systems or keep them purring?

It's critical to know how your systems have behaved during previous traffic spikes as you plan for the future. Understanding your baseline -- using the principles of observability -- during these high traffic times enables you to fine-tune your alerts so you can detect problems quickly.

You don't want to find yourself sifting through a mountain of false positives when five, ten, or even just two minutes of downtime can mean the difference between a banner Cyber Monday and a crashed website -- not to mention a tarnished brand reputation in the eyes of your customers. Knowing behavior during previous spikes also will help you in your capacity planning efforts this season.

2. Plan Ahead With Internal Teams and Cloud Providers

While you batten down the hatches for the holiday season in IT, do you know what your colleagues in marketing and sales have planned? You need to be connected cross-functionally to ensure sure you're in lockstep with other departments so you know exactly when to expect spikes in traffic.

If not accounted for in advance, BOGOs (buy one, get one free), SPIFFs (sales bonuses), and other promotions can cause a bump in traffic that sends retail websites and applications into overdrive, risking performance issues if you can't scale fast enough to manage the surge.

This brings us to another aspect of planning that most retailers don't consider in advance, which can cause a lot of headaches: Check your AWS or other cloud provider account limits now, not on Black Friday, when your website or app is struggling to handle the capacity. Don't wait until you have an outage to request the extra capacity; every other retailer will be trying to grab it at the same time. Time is of the essence and, if you wait for the signs of a problem, it may be too late.

3. Do a Dry Run

By coordinating with marketing you know what to expect and you're confident you'll have enough capacity when you need it. All set, right? Not so fast.

You want to take your systems through a dry run that simulates different scenarios before crunch time, so you have time to find things you may have missed -- and fix them before they become a problem. If your team has invested in observability, this is where you'll see the fruits of your labor with increased visibility into your systems.

4. Track the Right Things

Your team probably has a handle on the key infrastructure metrics of your systems via dashboards that provide insights into things like CPU utilization and memory, but the business metrics -- response time, error rates, or even custom metrics like items sold per second, for example -- are just as, if not more, important.

More than any other time of year, ensuring a great user experience is critical in the holiday season: Consumers are moving fast to try to snag the best deals, and if your website is slow -- or worse, completely down -- chances are they'll move on.

If you're stuck in a website brownout, with a lot of abandoned carts, you'll never get those customers (or that revenue) back. In fact, you risk losing future revenue as well, as customers who complete transactions on another site most likely will choose to return to that retailer in the future.

Monitoring key business metrics keeps you in tune with the customer experience, helping you identify any issues immediately while providing a view that's more digestible for your company's leadership and other business-oriented teams.

5. Have a Playbook Ready

You've diligently followed steps one through four and now you're outage-proof, right? Unfortunately, despite the best preparation, performance issues and outages still happen.

Through your planning, you've likely been able to reduce the severity of the issue, but you need to be prepared to fix unforeseen issues as quickly as possible.

If you have an observability playbook in place -- including detection and remediation processes -- and you've clearly outlined responsibilities, you'll be able to minimize the collateral damage of an outage and get up and running again as quickly as possible.

Wise Investment

At the end of the day, the huge spike in traffic during the holiday gift-giving season presents an incredible opportunity for retailers -- as long as your systems are ready to handle the rush.

You must be prepared in advance to ensure that your website and app hum along even under the heaviest of loads. By investing now to make your systems more observable, and by following these five steps, you can help keep your customers, business and holidays happy.


Arijit Mukherji, a distinguished architect at Splunk, is passionate about monitoring and observability. As the former CTO and first employee at SignalFx (acquired by Splunk), Arijit spent years designing, developing and managing many aspects of SignalFx's product. He has focused on the monitoring space for more than a decade.


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