E-commerce Scalability: Coping with Traffic Peaks


By Dan Nichols on 22nd August, 2018.

The Rise in Online Retail

The transformation of the digital landscape, increased use of the Internet, the rise of mobile device technology and the popularity of social media platforms and voice assistants, to name a few examples, have all contributed to the steady rise in online shopping.

Since eBay and Amazon first launched in 1995, online retail has grown exponentially with statistics showing that around 87% of UK consumers bought at least one product online in 2016 and that UK online retail sales were up +13.9% year-on-year (YoY) in January 2018.

The development and rapid take-up of smart phones and mobile applications, has enhanced users ability to shop anywhere, at any time, with an Adobe study showing that more than 40% of online spending in the UK was via mobile in 2016.

E-commerce and technology are changing consumer buying habits, and is the preferred shopping method for many, underlining the critical importance of maintaining a user and device friendly website, that performs well and is always available, when trading online.

Seasonal Spikes

Spikes in demand for products can be difficult to predict; forecasts are based on the previous year’s performance, which can vary depending on many factors including the current economic climate and changing consumer trends, as well as other contributing factors to shopper behaviour such as the weather.

So, how do you prepare your online business for these unexpected levels of traffic?

The usual catalysts for peaks in traffic are from events such as Easter and Christmas or from a successful marketing campaign, driving customers to your site through an advert or promotion.

However, the reasons for increased traffic to your website vary between industries, product categories and from company to company, so as a starting point, understanding your business, industry and your customers’ shopping behaviours is important.

Forward planning to prepare for these influxes in traffic to your website is vital to ensure that site performance, and therefore revenue, is not compromised.

Black Friday and Cyber Monday

Two events in the shopping calendar that have seen a huge rise in popularity in the UK over the last few years are Black Friday and Cyber Monday, both taking place in the run up to Christmas.

Figures from Black Friday 2017 show sales continue to grow year on year, with overall spending up 7% on 2016. UK E-commerce sales were also strong on Black Friday in 2017, with a total of £1.4bn spent online, up 11.7% from 2016 (IMRG). Cyber Monday sales were also up in 2017, with a 3% increase between 11am and 5pm compared to 2016.

The overall rise in e-commerce has had a huge impact on the high street, with fewer shoppers visiting physical retail stores, with a continuing trend for customers to move online.

E-commerce Website Hosting: Getting an Ideal Fit

So, with all these events in the shopping calendar and a steady rise in online vs in-store shopping, what do e-commerce businesses need from their hosting platform to cope with spikes in traffic?

E-commerce Scalability

By nature, e-commerce businesses face seasonal traffic spikes like those discussed above. To cope with these traffic increases, the ability to quickly and easily scale up and down resource to meet these demands is vital.

Using Virtual Machines (VMs) as part of your infrastructure instead of physical servers increases the speed of adding resources, adding RAM, vCPU and storage to scale vertically (increasing resources in existing virtual machines) or horizontally (adding more virtual machines to share load) is a quick and simple process.

Another offering to look out for when choosing a hosting provider is auto scaling, which ensures e-commerce scalability and that your website performance responds in line with traffic demand.

Auto scaling works by measuring the load on the web servers and once the load hits a certain threshold the auto-scale routine calls an API to deploy the additional VMs required. Scaling down is the reverse operation of this.

This service is currently available on the Secura VPC using VMware vCloud Director and usually managed by the customer to ensure full control, however with the new version of vCloud Director, you can manage auto scaling directly through the interface.

High Performance

For e-commerce businesses, high performance is vital to ensure an enjoyable shopping experience through to purchase. Ideally, resource performance would be guaranteed and uncontended, and if your site is hosted on multi-tenant infrastructure, unaffected by ‘noisy neighbour’ syndrome.

Many e-commerce websites are built on specific Content Management Systems (CMS) designed expressly for online trading, such as Kentico, Magento, SiteCore and many more.

Each of these frameworks will have their own specific requirements from a hosting perspective which must also be met at a minimum to ensure expected performance.

Pay-as-You-Go Costs

Flexible payment options such as pay-as-you-go and resource-based pricing can be a big plus when coping with traffic peaks and stress, as they mean that you only pay for the cloud resources that you need, enabling e-commerce scalability inline with revenue, so you can scale up when they need to and reduce resources following the peak.

However, with fully metered services akin to Azure and AWS, it can be very difficult to predict CPU, bandwidth and IOPs costs, which can fluctuate greatly when auto scaling.

In these instances, it is important to carefully manage and monitor your resources and set upper limits on scaling in case of any issues with rogue processes, code, and auto scaling logic to avoid unexpected costs.

Another cost to consider is licensing. Microsoft products that use core licensing (Windows Server, SQL Server etc.) would all need to be charged if additional cores were added to enable rapid scalability.

Security

Online shoppers need to know that a site is safe and secure and that their personal and financial information will be safeguarded.

An SSL certificate is the first step any online business takes but it’s also vital to have your business data backed up, should the worst ever happen.

Protecting your business and customer data is made easy with a hosting platform that provides full disaster recovery replication and backup, which can be added to your solution for complete peace of mind.

The online threat landscape evolves as quickly as legitimate technology (sometimes quicker) and in addition to having the protection of backups, advanced online security services are available to protect your website and customers from malware, viruses and other hacking attacks, with DDoS mitigation to keep your site online and trading if it is targeted by malicious traffic.

24/7 Support

For e-commerce retail in 2018, it’s vital to be online around the clock, whenever your customers want to shop. 24/7 support provides peace of mind, so should anything happen, there is always someone available to help resolve any issues.

Support availability (and competence) is a factor that should never be underestimated. When your business is 100% online and you suffer a fault that degrades the service you offer to your customers or takes you completely offline, rapid, knowledgeable support is worth its weight in gold.


E-commerce Scalability in Summary

The e-commerce market is still growing massively and with new shopping events such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday becoming more popular and competition in the marketplace getting stronger, it is vital your website is prepared to cope with and take full advantage of sudden influxes of high traffic.

For e-commerce businesses, being unprepared for busy periods of traffic can result in loss of revenue due to an underperforming, flooded or offline site, so, planning and setting up your website for success is crucial.

As a first step, getting to know your customers, industry, product categories and the events and seasons that affect buying behaviours is extremely valuable to help inform your planning and forecasts for increased demand.

Ensure your hosting provider can provide the online security you need to protect your business and customer confidence, as well as easily providing extra resources to cope with spikes in traffic so that site performance is not compromised.

From a financial perspective, decide whether your e-commerce business can afford to have ‘hot’ resources on standby or whether you need to look for a provider that can offer e-commerce scalability through tech which allows you to scale resources and costs dynamically.

In such a highly competitive sector, planning, to ensure you stay one step ahead, and choosing a hosting provider that understands your business requirements and can meet your e-commerce scalability, flexibility, availability and security needs, is crucial to the success of your business.


Dan Nichols

Chief Technical Officer

As Secura’s CTO, Dan is responsible for the team that design, build and maintain our cutting edge cloud hosting infrastructure. He is also the dishwasher police – stack it or else.

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