Practical Ecommerce

Experiencing Server Overload

Each month I talk about things I’ve learned by watching how other store owners run their businesses. Not that I don’t make my own mistakes, but I often try to keep my own embarrassing moments to myself. Until now… I’ve talked before about what to look for in a hosting company.

I’ve talked about making sure the server your online store relies upon is solid, secure and that the data center maintains alternate lines and power supplies. I missed a key point, however, and it relates to anticipated traffic.

Here comes the traffic

I run a personal website about The Black Dahlia—it’s a 60-year-old murder case wherein the victim, a 22-year-old wannabe actress, was found dead in a vacant lot. Hollywood recently released a fictionalized film on the event, and many television networks have aired segments or entire shows dedicated to the case. In September, I appeared on the A&E network and The Biography Channel.

I did anticipate a spike in traffic when the television shows were scheduled to run—it’s common that viewers rush to their computers to find out more info, and never was there a time where a decent spike in traffic didn’t occur. In September, however, I wasn’t prepared. I simply underestimated the power of film.

Less than a week after opening day, I had to have the site moved to a separate server immediately. More than 60,000 people tried to get in and the site, on a shared server, came to a screeching halt. We checked for everything we could change to relieve the server from its burden, but the site runs HTML and PHP—no crazy scripting and no shopping cart software. It was simply a matter of overload.

Plan in advance

I’ve had other clients whose products have been featured on television, and some have run large ad campaigns. The result is always the same: If they plan in advance, the visitors get to see what all the hype is about; if they don’t, nobody does because things go haywire and shoppers are met with hourglasses and errors.

In case you haven’t guessed it, my missed tip is to know your server’s limitations. Not all servers are ideally configured for the greatest possible amount of traffic and resources, nor should they be—configuring each server to handle situations like mine would be quite expensive, and too many online stores simply don’t need that expense as it would rarely, if ever, pay off. It does, however, pay to think ahead.

If you’re doing something—anything—that you’re sure would put quite a load on the server, you should take time to talk to your host and discuss short-term possibilities.Whether it’s allocating more resources to the site, or moving you to a dedicated server, the price you pay upfront for this should far outweigh the money you’d lose if people can’t shop your store.

We learn from our own mistakes. One of the clients who failed to report an upcoming TV show appearance left the host and others scrambling in real time while more than 25,000 people tried to hit the store in one shot. There were less than 150 orders placed, while it was anticipated the company would receive more than 1,500 orders in a two-hour period.

We also learn from others. Last year a book seller ran an announcement to existing customers about a new book from a major author. Fans could purchase limited-edition copies on a first-come, first-served basis. The initial load was under anticipated, but only a minute number of orders were lost. More than 1,000 books were ordered in a 24- hour period.

So the next time you plan to take out a full-page ad in a major magazine, be sure to ask yourself and others: Can the server upon which your site runs handle the load?

Pamela Hazelton

Pamela Hazelton

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