Avoiding a Crash When the Holiday Hordes Attack

The countdown to Cyber Monday has begun. Is your online business ready for the holiday shopping spree?

We’re all too familiar with sluggish online shopping experiences that have left us frustrated or caused us to leave the site altogether before we’ve completed a transaction. As the holiday shopping season looms, businesses can’t afford to have their websites slow down, or worse yet, taken down by traffic overload. But when user traffic spikes, servers can be taxed by compute-intensive SSL transactions, large data file requests and memory overloads. When customers can’t access your site or experience long waits, your business can suffer and revenues lost (at least for a time).

During the holiday season in particular, slow website performance or downtime is a costly proposition. Last year alone, Cyber Monday sales topped US$1 billion — with hundreds of millions of dollars more online transactions crossing the Web in December. How costly would it be to your business if your site crashed this holiday season? Network downtime is equivalent to shutting your store-front to customers.

Some businesses grappling with the prospect of high-volume traffic simply throw more hardware at the problem. However, this is not always the best strategy when traffic isn’t properly directed to the best performing resource. Nor is it economical for many businesses.

So how can you ensure Web uptime and speed this holiday season and optimize datacenter equipment — while keeping costs to a minimum? Below are some best practices for maintaining high performance and accessibility.

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  1. Know What Your Systems Can Handle: Have you tested your servers to ensure they can handle heavy traffic — especially during peak times and days during the holiday season? If not, find out if your system can cope with sudden spikes in traffic, and compare that to projections for your peak usage, always leaving plenty of room for error.

    Having this information can go a long way toward helping to figure out when and where to place resources. Remember that the more you know, the better prepared you will be to deal with the unknown.

  2. Keep Website Traffic Flowing: The challenges of addressing high availability and speed of access for customers can be solved with application delivery controllers (ADC)/server load balancer technology. These devices are able to monitor heavy traffic loads on busy servers and re-route the data to best-performing servers, preventing crashes and keeping traffic flowing.

    Many ADCs are equipped with added features, such as SSL acceleration, caching and compression, which can offload server-processor-intensive operations and further enable the control and management of traffic crossing through the system.

    For businesses that do not have the budgets to add to their server farms, ADCs are the most cost-effective way to maintain high performance and availability of existing Web application infrastructure.

  3. Secure and Accelerate Your Customers’ Transactions (and Your Revenues): E-commerce sites often use SSL to encrypt and secure shoppers’ transactions — a CPU-intensive process that can quickly deplete a server’s resources. ADC devices include SSL accelerators that remove the workload off of servers and place the burden on the ADC, delivering increased throughput and SSL transaction processing.

    Advanced ADCs now offer support for 2,048-bit SSL keys, which provide for greater encryption strength as compare to 1024-bit keys. This increase in SSL performance cost-effectively provides customers with improved performance and quicker response time for encrypted applications such as e-commerce applications where a website can be inundated with shopper traffic.

  4. Make Your Site and Your Customers “Sticky”:Persistence is a key factor in keeping your visitors happy. Look at the online shopping cart to understand the importance of persistence, or site “stickiness.”

    The “cart” holds data that reside on the server to which the customer first connected, which also served content during the session. If at any point during the session the customer is switched to a server that does not contain shopping cart data for that user, the shopping cart will be lost — as well as the sale. ADCs that operate at Layer 7 are able to recognize returning users and route them back to the same server on which their information is stored, providing for a smooth shopping experience.

  5. Keep Your Site Fail-proof: What would happen to a site if one of the servers becomes inaccessible? ADCs perform automatic health checking on the servers and applications and take a server offline if it has been deemed unresponsive or fails, automatically re-routing shoppers to other functioning servers.

    This process is essentially seamless (but critical) to customers. Since all inbound traffic passes through the ADC, should the ADC itself fail, the server farm and site can be taken down. For this reason, ADCs can be deployed in a redundant, high availability (HA) configuration to ensure website uptime.

Spikes in traffic — not only during holiday season but at other times during the day, week, month or year — necessitate a strategy to keep your e-commerce site up and running (and your customers satisfied with their online shopping experiences).

As businesses collect, store and access more and more data, servers are being asked to take on more and heavier data loads, and we will have to find creative and cost-effective ways to ensure uptime and speed. By planning for traffic needs to ensure proper traffic management and optimize web performance, you can stay ahead of the curve – keeping traffic flowing not only during the holiday season but also for years to come.

Peter Melerud is the cofounder and vice president of product development for KEMP Technologies.

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