Black Friday: How To Avoid Ecommerce Disaster - InformationWeek

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IT Leadership // Digital Business

Black Friday: How To Avoid Ecommerce Disaster

Can your retail site handle the traffic deluge on the busiest shopping day of the year? Avoid these six performance-testing mistakes, says BlazeMeter.

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Black Friday is mere weeks away and major retailers have already begun stress-testing their ecommerce sites to make sure they can handle the load. Failure to accommodate the onslaught of post-Thanksgiving shoppers might result not only in embarrassing headlines, but also millions of dollars in lost revenue.

BlazeMeter is a self-service, performance-testing platform provider that works with a variety of major retailers, including Walmart, Gap, and Disney. Its advice to retailers: September stress tests are essential to a glitch-free Black Friday.  

"Sites will go into a code freeze at least a few weeks before Black Friday, but now we're actually in the heat of performance testing," said Ophir Prusak, BlazeMeter's VP of product strategy, in a phone interview with InformationWeek.

[Want more on how to make your site bulletproof? Read How To Build Battle-Tested Websites.]

Prusak listed the six most common performance-testing mistakes made by ecommerce sites, as well as ways to prevent them. If your business is prepping for a Black Friday shop-a-thon, take heed:

Mistake #1: Not testing your production environment.
A lot of companies will test a staging or development system that they believe accurately reflects the production environment. But this dress rehearsal can lead to problems later. "There are a lot of things you can't anticipate in advance," such as slight differences in network infrastructure, said Prusak.

Not testing the production environment is a gamble. "Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but you're definitely taking a risk," noted Prusak, who added that "smart" companies will test their production systems, often in the wee hours of the morning.

"I can't name names, but I will say that one of the largest clothing retailers tests (its) production environment to the point of bringing the site down." This usually happens around 2 a.m. US Pacific Time once every two months or so, Prusak said.  

Mistake #2: Not accurately estimating the anticipated load, or number of users.
It's often hard for ecommerce sites to estimate the size of Black Friday crowds. "You never really know," said Prusak "We've seen people underestimate the actual increased load compared to previous years. Or even worse, you're a new entity and you don't have enough historic information to go on."

The testing solution? Push your system to the limit.

Image: Wikipedia
Image: Wikipedia

"It's not enough to say, ‘My site can handle 500,000 users, and that's what I anticipate this year,'" Prusak said. "You should push your system to the breaking point and say, ‘Well, if [Black Friday traffic] is 600,000 or 800,000 or a million, how close am I going to be to the breaking point?'"

Mistake #3: Failure to identify bottlenecks.
A lot of companies will stress-test and assume they can handle the heavy load. But bottlenecks vary by individual systems, so it's critical to run end-to-end tests across your entire infrastructure.

Where do these bottlenecks usually occur?

"It depends so much on the actual architecture," said Prusak. "I can't say there is one, but I will say that very often it is the database. It really depends on

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Jeff Bertolucci is a technology journalist in Los Angeles who writes mostly for Kiplinger's Personal Finance, The Saturday Evening Post, and InformationWeek. View Full Bio

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D. Henschen
D. Henschen,
User Rank: Author
9/22/2014 | 12:41:45 PM
Never too early to start planning
Companies that properly prepare for the Christmas selling season need to get started in summer, so it's never too soon to heed this advice. In fact, advice on topics like third-party integrations and having backups (if you don't have them already) might be too late for 2014, but don't throw your hands up and put it off.

I used to cover direct marketing, and I can assure you that all the creative work, list buying, customer segmentation and even mailing for Christmas campaigns is already done by this time of year -- at least where catalogs and other forms or direct mail are concerned. I'm sure the digital campaigns are also scheduled and planned, and the merchandize selection and ordering was all taken care of months ago. Retailers and direct marketers, please tell me if I'm wrong. I covered your business back in the late 1990s, so mabye times have changed, but I doubt it. Is all the holiday camapaign work in the bag (planned if not executed) by this time of year?

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