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The sometimes frantic online Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping days that we’ve adopted from the American Thanksgiving weekend are becoming a real institution in Britain, with Black Friday alone generating around £7 billion in online sales in the UK in 2017.

Some brands are in danger of missing out on this retail bonanza, simply because they have not thought through how their ecommerce offering might cope with the demands and spikes that today’s demanding e-consumers bring.

The issue that too many brands have is focusing their investment in creating an attractive user friendly and engaging front-end that’s easy to navigate and checkout, while neglecting investing in the website’s back-end infrastructure. Without the appropriate attention and investment in the back-end, as well as the front-end, brands are left with a website that will deliver a poor performance or could even crash during the peak periods Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

Ensure peak server performance 

First and foremost, it’s vital to have an understanding of your web server’s available resource. If you have your own dedicated server are you aware of your current load levels? With spikes in users occurring throughout the day it’s important to be mindful of the free resource above those spikes and not be fooled by ‘average load’. You might have an average load of 40%, and think great we have 60% resource spare. You would be wrong, because in busy times your users and ecommerce processes can cause spikes up to 90% of the server’s resource. Anything over 90% capacity and process queueing starts and the website generally slows up. While small load peaks can be absorbed during busy periods, such as Black Friday, these spikes can be continuous and potentially take down the website.

There are various ways for brands to reduce the issues caused by load spikes and aid the smooth running of their web servers. This includes fixing software errors and ironing out chunky application processes. Equally important is to review and, where appropriate, effectively tune and configure the server stack, which can save thousands of pounds in excessive hosting costs, improving website speeds and reliability during high load times.

To help reduce server load by as much as 50% brands can look to use intelligent website caching services such as CloudFlare or a content delivery network such as KeyCDN which are fairly straightforward to implement. Also, brands can invest in a queueing system – an option for those with a good back-end system that can’t cope with peaks in users on one or two days of the year. This is ideally suited to those who sell products or services that can’t be purchased elsewhere, so the customer is happy to wait.

If you are on a shared server it’s much harder to manage issues associated with peaks, but there are tools available that help provide website caching and bot blocking to help mitigate issues during spikes in users. A good web development agency will be able to advise and deliver on all these aspects of improving server performance.

Of course it might be worth considering upgrading your server to cope with the spikes, but bear in mind you will be committed to the upgrade for at least a 12-month. Server specifications are continuously improving so avoid signing up for long term contracts.  

Also, don’t think that because your server is in the cloud that your site won’t go down. Unless you have a high-availability auto-scaling solution the chances are that your cloud hosting resource is limited in the same way as a physical server. Auto-scaling solutions can work well, but at an increase in hosting cost.

Marketing and reporting timings

Other ways to reduce the pressure on your website on potentially busy days of the year include spreading your marketing campaigns and promotions across longer periods to lighten those Black Friday loads. Don’t add to the burden unnecessarily on your website around peak times with heavy reporting and big application code changes. It never ends well.

Emergencies

In case of emergency, such as the site crashing, make sure you have the correct contact details of the web developers and the server hosting company. Have the appropriate agreement that means you can, for example, wake them at 1am to fix a major problem. Often this means a service level agreement for your website application which is usually separate to hosting support. Make sure you have both elements covered.

For those who have neglected the back-end infrastructure that supports the health of their website now is the time to focus on and invest in this area, particularly as the busiest retail period of the year approaches. Those that do will generate increased sales and have happy customers.

Mark Fitzsimmons, managing director, Xigen