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Five steps for holiday preparedness

Friday December 16 2011

Bruno Hourdel, content delivery expert, discusses how web application performance management can make every transaction count this holiday season

Bruno Hourdel, content delivery expert, discusses how web application performance management can make every transaction count this holiday season

 

Cyber-merchants continue to be the bright star in retail, driving a significant part of the retail economy. They gain significant market share every year, with an analyst growth forecast of 15-16% for 2011, and up to 40%, of their revenue coming in the four weeks before Christmas.

 

To achieve this, Bruno Hourdel, Akamai Technologies product line director in the Europe, Middle East and Africa region, said they have to rely on a strong infrastructure, a bulletproof internet platform and robust operations. Hourdel shared five areas Akamai Technologies believes are key to preparing that infrastructure.

 

Five back-to-basics steps for holiday preparedness:

 

1. Understand every event on your sale calendar

 

Map out all characteristics of each sale event: Hourdel said that, with the advent of social deal offers, flash sales and the proliferation of mobile devices, the dynamics of each event can vary significantly. “In identifying a site’s potential weaknesses, it is essential to map out the characteristics of each event on your sale calendar; each of these characteristics (such as breath of sale, shopper requirements, etc.) may dictate significant changes in shopper behaviour on your site,” he explained.

 

He also warned to expect the unexpected event: “A distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack should be an event planned for like any other on the calendar, particularly when the infrastructure is already expected to be under strain from revenue-generating traffic.”

 

2. Load testing, and more load testing

 

A surprising number of e-commerce vendors are still bypassing load testing altogether, or are failing to run load tests with real-world characteristics, according to Hourdel. “It is essential to know where vulnerabilities exist so you can – at a minimum – prepare your contingency plan,” he said.

 

Identify how user behaviour changes from event to event: “A shopper under pressure will have a much faster conversion cycle, with less browsing activity, than a browser participating in a traditional sale. As a result of these distinctions, your shopping cart will see much higher load than your catalogue,” he added. “You should plan to map your expected user site flows with each sale activity, and ensure all are load tested.”

 

Use a distributed load testing provider: “Distributed load testing is directly applicable to sites with large mobile audiences,” Hourdel continued. “These devices are found on a variety of networks that apply a wide variety of caching techniques making this type of testing essential.”

 

3. Prioritise known vulnerabilities

 

Identify low-hanging fruit that can be addressed in weeks versus months: Hourdel said a survey conducted by Akamai found that anonymous shopper page requests, including bot activity, can account for up to 60% of total site traffic. Offloading anonymous page requests from your constrained application and database tiers should enable your site to immediately accommodate more traffic growth.

 

He also urged the formation of a cross-functional team to make trade-off decisions: Develop a plan of action – or non-action – evaluated on the following criteria:

- Potential brand and revenue impact on an event-by-event basis

- Level of effort to address

- Cost to address

 

4. Identify a contingency plan for attacks and downtime

 

Assess your back-up options: Hourdel said these can range from sophisticated solutions that take years to plan for – such as an alternate data centre – to a simple failover page that could help you to keep your brand intact and allow you to communicate updates to your customers.

 

Consider shopper traffic control: Consider options that protect your servers from high load while still allowing you to process transactions. “As an example,” a throttling application will allow you to move a segment of visitors to a branded site experience when trouble strikes,” he explained. “The key is having the option to immediately re-route a percentage of shoppers and keeping them engaged until your servers can handle their requests if and when you need it.”

 

5. Coordinate your operational response to problems

 

Develop your playbook for the unexpected: Include your critical technology partners in the playbook procedures, and ensure they are prepared to respond as expected.

 

Hourdel restated that when every minute your site is unavailable and could cost your company thousands of pounds – or more – you need the right planning to stay on top of site traffic and performance. “Fortunately, the steps for preparedness above are far less complex to implement than you may expect and can dramatically improve your ability to capture every transaction and maximise revenue,” he concluded.