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Seasonal shopping days: advice for retailers on avoiding damaging downtime

Seasonal shopping days, such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday, while great for consumers, can be manically stressful for IT teams, who are tasked with keeping IT systems running smoothly and securely despite sometimes unprecedented surges in traffic. Any downtime on Black Friday could cost a retail business huge amounts, and lead to disgruntled customers.

To help IT teams prepare for seasonal shopping days, six IT experts give their tips for maintaining availability:

Gary Watson, CTO of StorCentric and Founder of Nexsan, highlights the importance of IT resilience. He said: “Seasonal shopping days such as Black Friday test the peak capacity of IT resources, often to breaking point. With many retailers expecting to see a rise in profits – and more customers coming through the door, either physically or digitally – everything right down to the fulfilment is tested. With this in mind, it’s important to ensure any IT environment can meet the retailer’s needs and isn’t being stretched beyond its limits. This also means testing the elasticity and capacity demands and ensuring there are adequate cost control measures in place when it comes to scalability.”

Echoing his sentiments, Jon Lucas, director, Hyve Managed Hosting said: “With a massive £1.4bn spent in online sales in the UK last Black Friday, the stage is definitely set for the biggest shopping date of the year. Floods of consumers wait in anticipation to get the best deals, and in turn bombard websites with traffic. The question is, is your hosting ready? All the discounted pricing, online advertising, and most importantly your merchandise, will be a waste if your website fails to cope with spikes and influxes. After all, over a third of UK shoppers say a non-functioning website immediately damages their opinion of a brand, causing perceptions of an ‘unprofessional’ and ‘poorly managed’ business. Make sure you have a scalable solution in place that can run tests on your website beforehand, adjust resources as and when needed and easily manage bursts of activity to provide a reliable, secure platform when you need it most.”

Paul Bryce, CCO, Node4 said: “Black Friday is the busiest trading day of the year for online retailers, and they'll be pulling out all the stops to maximise this opportunity. However, this could all be scuppered if downtime is experienced, as not only is the customers’ experience negatively affected, but with consumers looking elsewhere for deals, sales could also drop. Though one size doesn’t fit all, a hybrid cloud solution can be used to provide retailers the best of all options on Black Friday; with fixed capacity for core applications and the ability to rapidly scale on demand with the public cloud, this accommodates the sudden influx of traffic. Additionally, having a disaster recovery strategy in place is crucial – running on a single platform can still leave you exposed if something were to go wrong, and so having sufficient recovery plans in place helps you get back online and trading.”

Gijsbert Janssen van Doorn, Tech Evangelist at Zerto also reiterated the importance of avoiding downtime. He said: “Avoiding downtime is something that should always be top of mind for all businesses, however it’s especially important over the Black Friday weekend. At this time of year, retailers feel the pressure to ensure 100 percent uptime to serve an ‘always-available’ customer culture. Last year, a record-breaking $5.03 billion worth of sales were made on Black Friday and, with a similar turnout expected this year, retailers will need to ensure they stay online to capitalise on the opportunity.

“When it comes to managing this high demand surge over consumer holidays like Black Friday, establishing a multi-cloud environment can help make sure your website isn’t vulnerable to suddenly dropping offline. Indeed, having the freedom to move to, from and between any combination of clouds, including Azure, AWS and the hundreds of smaller local cloud providers available, can aid retailers in coping with the huge spike of traffic and sales, regardless of any challenges that third-party cloud suppliers may be experiencing. The risk is spread across multiple platforms, minimising the possibility of vendor downtime.

“A lot of demand is placed on retail IT systems during the peak holiday season, so the ability to quickly, easily and safely move workloads to, from and between different types of cloud environment can significantly improve system performance, even in the midst of peak holiday sales season."

James Henigan, Cloud and Managed Services director, Six Degrees continued: “Scalable cloud services can be vital for businesses operating in today’s competitive retail environment. It’s critical to build a suitable platform and application architecture that enables horizontal scaling of the application in scenarios of load increase. Working with your service provider to understand how this can be technically and commercially achieved is a key consideration, along with how dynamically this can work. The cost of dynamic scaling is often not warranted when peak demand is known and can be planned for. However, with events such as Black Friday when the size of the load increase is unknown, having the ability to dynamically scale is critical, along with the appropriate commercial and contractual model that enables this.”

Keeping up with the volume of traffic on Black Friday is integral for success. Jeff Keyes, Director of Marketing, Plutora explained why retailers should think about mean time to recovery (MTTR). He said: “MTTR should be at the forefront of companies’ minds as we approach this holiday season. If these companies only experience downtime once every year, but it takes an entire day to recover, consumers won't care that the issue has not happened at any other time all year. All that will be talked about is the long recovery time. But if the site goes down five times on one day for less than one second, it would hardly be noticeable. To ensure a lower MTTR, organizations should incorporate failure planning into every level of service delivery – creating redundancies in every layer of the application delivery stack. Plan for failures anywhere and everywhere. There are even open source toolsets created to induce chaos into the infrastructure such as the Simian Army. Reduce time of delivery for software updates utilising continuous deployment with significant automated tests so that patches are less likely to introduce further problems.”

Ultimately, preparation is key to a successful seasonal shopping days. Just as shoppers will plan their shopping in advance of heading for the sales, IT teams must prepare their infrastructure to handle the increased traffic.



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