Dealing with Black Friday and Cyber Monday traffic spikes

What if your e-commerce website crashes on what should be its busiest day or the year? Here are some tips on making sure your site is ready to cope with Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

Posted on 02 December 2014 - Hosting
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There were some pretty shocking images of frenzied would-be shoppers battling for Black Friday bargains at shops across the UK and Ireland last week. Hordes of people were shown crowding around entrances, waiting for stores to open so that they could then trample over the people in front in search of a new TV.

Less dramatically, when you’re doing your Christmas shopping you might notice some shops seemingly trying to create a bit of a buzz by forcing people to queue outside their less-than-crowded store, presumably in the hope that passers-by will join out of curiosity.

But we’re not convinced that either of those tactics transfer to websites. When the high street is offering crazy prices, ease of access and convenience ought to work in the internet’s favour. That wasn’t always the case on Black Friday, with some big-name stores struggling to cope with demand.

The BBC reports:

Many retailers traded from midnight to maximise shopping times and put deals online overnight.

But websites including John Lewis, Argos and Tesco Direct struggled to handle the increased traffic.

And Currys customers were left drumming their fingers as they waited up to an hour in a virtual queue.[…]

John Lewis, which offered website deals from midnight, said that between midnight and 6am, traffic to was up 307% compared with Black Friday last year.[…]

But at the start of the day about 7% of its customers were unable to access the site first time due to the level of demand.[…]

At midday, the queue to access Currys' website was over half an hour long.

Overnight, Tesco Direct also experienced high demand, and was temporarily unavailable. 

No doubt some customers were willing to be patient, but you would imagine that sales were lost along the way. And there wasn’t really any need for that to happen.

How to deal with traffic spikes (even when they’re as big as on Black Friday or Cyber Monday)

Give a heads up to your hosting company or IT team

If your website is hosted externally, give your hosting company a heads up well in advance. Tell them everything you're planning to do, including intricate details of sales campaigns and marketing plans. You could get them to sign a non-disclosure agreement beforehand if the thought of doing this makes you a bit nervous.

When your hosting company know all the information in advance, you can get their advice and get them to plan for peaks in sales traffic. Make them work for you and reduce the opportunities for excuses after the event.

If your website is hosted in house, give your IT team plenty of notice. As with an external host, give them all the details of what will be in the sale and your marketing plans. You could encourage them to consider buying in external capacity to help keep the site live during sales peaks.

Flexible hosting environment

Any website is susceptible to unplanned spikes in traffic. The key is to choose a flexible hosting environment that allows server resources to be ramped up within minutes of a spike being detected. Essentially, you’re already planning for those unplanned spikes.

Focus on database server capacity

The database server capacity is almost always the bottleneck on ecommerce sites, so raise this with your hosting company or IT team.

Use content caches and front end website accelerators

Cache any content you can. Use NGinx and Varnish - free tools that improve website performance during busy periods. Tolerate longer caching periods when you're expecting a traffic spike. For instance, maybe two minutes instead of 30 seconds. Performance on the day is all that matters.

Make your development company work with your hosting company to get the right balance by working together – make it their problem to make sure the website remains available at all times.

Proactively monitor usage

Keeping a close eye on usage and server loads will help you to get to know your hosting and what will take the server or service to its thresholds. Monitoring systems will alert you when you’re approaching you capacity.

Even during a spike, monitoring the statistics can help to inform your response for future spikes. So information from Black Friday this year could help to prepare you for next year. Share the results in face-to-face debrief with your hosting team or hosting company to discuss what lessons have been learned.