Phil Godfrey, Solutions Architect, Park Place Technologies
The potential for website overload takes on even greater significance this year as holiday online retail shopping transactions hit an all-time high in 2020. This season, whether it be the convenience of 24×7 shopping or the prospect of avoiding the crowds in a Covid-era, this high volume ecommerce trading window stretches from Black Friday into the January sales. That’s over six weeks for online retailers continually offering an optimal, always-on, highly performing customer experience for online transactions. Competition in the online retail sector is higher than any other so the user experience of speed and ease are essential factors for repeat transactions.
Problems that keep retail ecommerce managers and infrastructure leads awake at night through this critical trading window occur when sluggish performance hits – usually because peak demands are far higher than anticipated. Throughput suffers and consequently, fewer transactions can be made, and the user experience is compromised to such a degree that they shop elsewhere. There are of course e-commerce essentials to adhere to and most are factored at the site design stage, but they are still worth checking. Smaller retailers may be using external Web hosting, the servers of which themselves may incur downtime if they are not offering 99.9% uptime guarantees. Bandwidth may also be an issue, in which case dedicated servers with unlimited bandwidth should be considered. Or it could be that the site domain name is assigned with a dynamic IP address, itself shared with other business owners, whereas a static IP address can give greater site stability.
Security is also a key consideration and expected prerequisite for customers who expect to see websites secured by an SSL certificate. To avoid these issues, larger retail organisations invariably run e-commerce in-house. Their challenge is to optimise their infrastructure in time and avoid sluggish performance between apps and databases or worse, incur downtime. A successful retail user experience today hinges on speed. Even Google ² themselves use speed loading times as a ranking factor. Various research highlights that when e-commerce pages take over 4 seconds to load, 25% of visitors lose patience or confidence, or both, and leave, so speed really is of the essence.
To achieve continual speed, infrastructure leads need to work closely with their e-commerce team and plan for all trading eventualities. On the infrastructure side, ecommerce sites – and especially those with an in-store retail presence – need network management software that can detect changes holistically to ensure that the entire retail network environment is working to its optimum in real-time across the estate. Critical systems need to be functioning as expected with minimal errors. A trusted third party maintenance provider (TPM) can be quickly deployed to assist with network monitoring and control, often hosted remotely, and using AI for predictive analysis before impact and e-commerce interruption can occur. Failure of servers or networking switches that hosts warehouse, stocking and inventory levels can have a devastating impact on abandoned online shopping carts and instore in shopping trolleys. Indeed, an asset doesn’t need to be deemed as ‘failed’ to have a knock-on impact on network performance; processing may take longer because of increased latency and lack of responsiveness.
Network flow analysis software can further help monitor responsiveness, as well as leveraging network fault monitoring for alerting and diagnosing problems. Software updates also takes on great importance in an ecommerce scenario. Security-related patches from the original equipment manufacturer, for instance, should be monitored and installed. Sensibly scheduling hardware replacement and upgrade activity alternatively should be assumed within quieter trading windows. On the e-commerce side, e-commerce managers can also work alongside suitably experienced TPM’s to identify load crippling factors during traffic peaks that can include₃:-
- Are the performance patches on the Content Management System up to date?
- Are DNS (domain name system) minimised including embedded links to YouTube, twitter feeds and other external resources?
- Is compression working and shortening page load times by up to 70%?
- Are redirects effective, needed or do they redirect multiple times? Similarly, are links working?
- Is caching deployed that can be browser saved for further use ?
- Are images compressed and width and height coded correctly?
- Are additional servers needed at peak times via a Content Delivery Network (CDN)?
- Are mobile transactions optimised?
As with all critical infrastructures, planning is essential and ongoing whatever the time of year. Stress testing helps to identify aspects that cause slow e-trading. Backups should be integral and include stock databases. Security should be scrutinised and inherent. Infrastructures are complex, inter-related, diverse, and often the best policy is to transfer the management and advisory overhead to specialists in the retail field, leaving in-house resources to focus on the next stage of digital innovation and an increased customer retail experience.