E-commerce services: Providers prepare customers for holiday rush

VARs and cloud hosting providers say that preparing retail customers for the e-commerce holiday sales surge needs to happen sooner than later.

As retailers ramp up their plans for e-commerce holiday sales online, IT channel solutions providers can help prepare their customers' IT infrastructure for their busiest sales season of the year. If a customer with an e-commerce operation is using hosted cloud services with companies such as Rackspace, planning should begin now (or last week) solutions providers said.

Just as important as logistics and marketing planning, planning your IT architecture in preparation for Cyber Monday and the e-commerce holiday shopping season is important, said Michael Harvey, chief operating officer at CorraTech, a New York-based e-commerce servicess provider.

"Typically a lot of … merchants get a traffic spike during the holiday shopping season -- from 25% to 500%," Harvey said. "But, it's clear that even in this day and age, even very successful companies don't plan for this."

E-commerce services: Planning for the holiday traffic spike

To help customers plan for this spike, some analysis will be required, he said. To begin, look at last year's numbers. If the site wasn't up last year, then you'll need to look at broader industry statistics for the retail segment the merchant is in. For example, if they are a fashion retailer, holiday sales figures for the fashion industry versus sales figures for the rest of the year would be the best way to get a ballpark estimate of how the traffic might spike.

Analytics is useful to get the number of visitors, page views, and number of orders for a time period (per hour or something like that). Other numbers to take into consideration include the current active users and how much activity they are generating.

"The actual check-out is usually the biggest level of activity in the database," Harvey said. "That's typically where you're running into bottlenecks that will affect the whole load."

Next, create load testing script and benchmark the site capacity and performance.

"You want a script that hits the homepage, picks a product and puts that product in the shopping cart," he said. "More likely than not, you're going to find that performance is deficient in some area, and some pages that are slow."

Before looking at changing a site's architecture or using cloud servers to handle increased traffic, there are things that can be done to tune the existing site architecture.

"We can take a system that is not well-tuned for caching and increase the performance by 30% to 60%," Harvey said. But if that isn't sufficient, adding a content delivery network (CDN) from a vendor such as Akamai can boost performance. Using a CDN, the static content from the site -- including images, XML and Java -- is offloaded to a cloud service, freeing up the in-house database servers.

But if not, and the site is still sluggish under load testing, then the bottleneck is the servers themselves Harvey said.

"Look and see if you have as much RAM as you can stuff in; it may be the case that the servers that you're using are fully maxed out," he said.

Now it's time to see how you might add capacity, either to the database or in the front end.

"The Web front end can move up to the cloud," said Harvey, who noted that many e-commerce retailers use a hybrid implementation with a load balancer that can balance physical and virtual servers in the cloud.

"If you're working with the cloud, you can have a plan in place that includes the ability to turn on additional servers up in the cloud," he said. "That's how you would ensure you have scale for the real traffic surges that you have during the holidays."

Preparing cloud hosting providers for e-commerce holiday traffic

To have this capacity available, now is the time to talk to cloud hosting providers such as Rackspace, because they need to have their architecture ready and available to host this additional demand.

"The hosting is something that often comes at the end of the evaluation as an afterthought," said Adrianna Bustamante, who works in commerce channel development at Rackspace. "When retailers are looking at the holidays, we are used to being at the end of the discussion, but it's not where we like to be."

The tweaks to applications that can be done to make the website perform more smoothly need to be done early, as hosting providers such as Rackspace need time to test their systems with the new applications.

"For scaling for the cloud, we can do things on the fly and provision servers, but a lot of times there may need to be tweaks … at the application level, and that takes development time," she said. "A lot of retailers want a nirvana, where everything scales seamlessly, but we’re not there yet."

Channel solutions providers need to talk to their e-commerce customers about the cost and benefits of optimizing their IT architecture for the holiday shopping season.

"We're happy to walk through the scenarios and have more aggressive failover for the holidays," Bustamante said. "You don't want to have that moment where your site load goes to 10 seconds. Abandoned shopping carts happen all the time if that user experience is not optimal."

Having these conversations early and communicating with the cloud services provider is the best way to prevent problems with e-commerce services, such as a slow site during the critical shopping season.

"We can only be as good as the information we have," Bustamante said. "The partners who know us take full advantage of our capabilities."

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