The Enterprise Guide to Web Traffic Spikes

Unanticipated Web site traffic can be tough for any IT administrator to handle, and sometimes a major surge can highlight a company’s online weak points in sharp relief. Fortunately, many spikes can be predicted and, even more importantly, faced with a sound strategy.

Whether a company is expecting a click bonanza in the upcoming holiday season or is about to make a major announcement, preparing for an expected rush of visitors is crucial. However, in ramping up to prepare for a traffic surge, the company also must avoid overestimating traffic volume and spending too much on resources as a result.

How can an enterprise prepare adequately for a Web traffic spike without overspending on capacity that ultimately goes unused?

Know What’s Coming

The first step in preparing for a spike is knowing how intense the traffic flow might get. Girding for war when there is only a minor skirmish ahead is a recipe for disaster.

Christopher Faulkner, CEO of hosting provider C I Host, told the E-Commerce Times that during the holiday season, a 35 percent increase in traffic is not unusual.

“The worst thing you can do is assume you’re not going to have a traffic spike,” he said. “By not preparing, you’re practically setting yourself up for a bad situation.”

E-commerce holiday traffic has increased each year, and Faulkner said anyone trying to make a prediction simply needs to do the math. “You should chart your traffic growth over last year and then add what you think your spike will be,” he explained. “This year, people are saying it will be at least 25 percent.”

Serve It Up

A company that experiences downtime during a traffic jam will learn quickly that either its network bandwidth or its server load capacity is to blame. Both are stressed when a spike occurs, and they must work in conjunction with each other. A healthy amount of server power will not keep anything running smoothly if bandwidth is lacking. Similarly, a wealth of bandwidth is poor compensation for a sputtering server.

One approach is to add more servers, but this move can be cost-prohibitive for a company that only experiences traffic surges at a few peak times, such as major holidays. Although extra servers can be a comfort during the busy season, they will be nothing more than excess, costly hardware when traffic slows. For this reason, enterprises that do not want to outsource server duties might find it easiest to buy the right kind of hardware rather than upping server quantity.

Load balancers can help. True to their name, they balance the server load so that no single server is overly taxed. For example, a site can have a server for images and another for text. A load balancer will send requests to each machine to pull together the content, thereby reducing the workload. When a spike hits, this kind of configuration can make more server power available.

A cache server is another tool that can spread work among many servers. These machines reside between the Internet connection and a Web server to cache and distribute content. Other solutions can be had as well, including hardware that fine-tunes connections, and for companies that are concerned about overspending, outsourcing may be worth investigation.

Host of the Party

When outsourcing, especially for small to mid-size e-commerce sites, it is valuable to find a dependable managed hosting provider. After all, such providers have myriad servers just waiting for traffic to zip through them.

Paul Froutan, vice president of engineering at hosting company Rackspace, told the E-Commerce Times that most legitimate providers have deep knowledge of how to provide short-term traffic management.

“[Companies] can work out a plan of using a load balancer for a month, for example,” Froutan said. “They can also rent however many servers they think they’ll need. It doesn’t make sense for companies to buy a lot of hardware and software that they’re only going to use two months out of the year.”

‘Tis the Traffic Season

Indeed, some providers cater to companies that have different traffic needs at different times of year. Two years ago, for example, C I Host started offering specials on holiday hosting.

“It’s a temporary solution for people that know they’ll have traffic spikes during the shopping season,” Faulkner said. “We do deeper monitoring of the client site to make sure that transactions are going well. If they aren’t, we can even reboot the server.” In January, clients can discontinue the extra help.

Some hosting services also make available a la carte solutions, such as replicating a database or supplying a company with temporary storage.

Big Guns

If a company needs a more heavy-duty solution than a hosting provider can offer, it can outsource its traffic anxieties to a company like NetScaler, which provides secure application-networking systems.

As the company that handles Ticketmaster, NetScaler is familiar with traffic spikes.

Prabakar Sundarrajan, the company’s CTO, told the E-Commerce Times: “People tend to overprovision. That’s the wrong way to go about it. What you have to do is regulate the traffic, not just throw servers at the problem.”

NetScaler’s multilayered approach of using tiered architecture allows clients to have intrusion detection, access control and authentication as well as traffic control. Such a robust solution likely is not necessary for a mom-and-pop e-tailer, but bigger sites might find such attention to detail comforting.

The best way to avoid overspending and achieve ROI is to determine the extent of an expected traffic spike and then dole out resources accordingly. In other words, think like a Boy Scout, and always be prepared.

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