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Tech Solutions

Cloud scaling spares you red faces and angry customers

Smarter Writer
Smarter Team

The Smarter Team is made up of business and technology journalists who write to offer insights to small and medium businesses about technology, business know-how and emerging trends.

Smarter Writer
Smarter Team

The Smarter Team is made up of business and technology journalists who write to offer insights to small and medium businesses about technology, business know-how and emerging trends.

Highlights
  • Website outages due to traffic spikes can mean lost revenue and reputational damage.
  • Cloud scaling can help businesses deal with traffic fluctuations, avoiding outages and costly idling.

Any small business in the digital age needs to get serious about cloud scaling – to avoid the embarrassment and irate customer response prompted by an underperforming or unavailable website.

One of the funny things about selling a great product on a great website is that overwhelming success can, at times, have fatal business consequences.

Picture a bricks-and-mortar clothing store, like Country Road, running a highly effective promotion. Success in a physical sense is a store packed with buyers fighting over clothes while other customers line up on the street just to get inside. The energy and excitement of the event would generate curiosity, envy and even FOMO (the fear of missing out) among passersby – in short, a successful sale turns into an even more successful marketing event.

two people working on a laptop together Website outages can cause frustration for customers and loss of revenue.

Now picture an equivalent scenario online. What would that look like?

When buyers overwhelm an online store, success can quickly turn into failure. Not just lost sales, but reputational damage that can result in permanently lost customers.

There are endless stories of e-commerce websites grinding to a halt after a deluge of visitors. Those same customers who were rushing to the real-life Country Road to find a bargain might find they can’t access the Country Road site when they shop online, let alone its discounts. Instead, they might meet a server error or, worse still, a site that only half works. When pages load slowly, a customer is more likely to give up in frustration than click through to their shopping cart. This is a lost opportunity, for both the consumer and business.

Digital natives (loosely defined as consumers born after 1980) have high expectations of online interactions. A business must not only have a website – well designed and easy to browse – but that website must also be on 24/7. The digital native’s points of comparison are Facebook and Google, massive online platforms that deal with billions of users. It’s imperative that those platforms are open at all times, no matter what. The same should apply for small businesses.

Product launches are particularly sensitive times for e-commerce websites, especially when there’s a marketing campaign generating buzz for it. When Nintendo announced the release of its Classic Mini NES console in 2016, the website of electronic games retailer EB Games crashed two days in a row because a flood of eager gamers logged on at the advertised time to pre-order the device – resulting in traffic approximately fifteen times higher than EB Games’ daily average. Frustrated shoppers slammed the business on Twitter. To add insult to injury, by the time EB Games fixed its website, the Mini NES had sold out.

EB Games hadn’t adequately scaled up its infrastructure to handle a massive spike in simultaneous traffic. As a result, they lost out on a huge number of sales.

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Spikes in website traffic are becoming more common and more unpredictable as businesses adopt ever-more-sophisticated marketing tactics. Advertising campaigns across social media and other platforms are increasingly personalised. The ad will refer to an individual’s interests or preferences, or contain a specific offer for finely targeted audiences.

Marketers want the flexibility to tailor messages and offers, and split-test variations to see which will get a higher conversion rate.

One factor driving unpredictability in traffic is the contextual impact of a marketing campaign. If a news story breaks on Facebook and a marketer inserts a highly relevant offer, then that can drive a high number of conversions. This may be intentional or coincidental, and it may occur so quickly that there is little time to prepare for the response. Offline factors that can boost traffic include the time of day, time of year and even the weather.

Companies running websites on their own servers are not always able to prepare for high spikes in traffic. So how do Google and Facebook do it? Instead of working on a ratio of servers to traffic and ensuring it’s within the capacity of their data centre, they build a pool of computing and storage power.

The concept of cloud scaling gives a business the ability to instantly ramp up or down the number of servers required to meet traffic demands. This mitigates the risk of overspending on extra physical capacity and idle servers. It also eliminates the reverse: the e-commerce website grinding to a halt during peak sales seasons.

The beauty of cloud scaling is that it can be automated as soon as specific parameters (latency, processor usage) are met. When traffic spikes, cloud providers can spin up the necessary firepower with no human intervention required.

A cloud platform can also help businesses scale in another way: geographically. It is easy to copy an application and spin it up on a new server to support a new office.

Civica, an IT consultancy company that works with government agencies, councils and libraries, helped an education customer set up a management system for schools in the Northern Territory. It took eight weeks to set up the system, despite the remote locations of the schools.

“If you’re dealing with remote locations like the Northern Territory, it’s expensive and time-consuming,” says Daryn Vanstone, Civica’s marketing director. “If things go wrong, you have to wait for them to be fixed. With cloud you can [respond] quickly and avoid the cost of sunk IT. The customer can be up and running very quickly.”

Cloud scaling requires a different mix of skills to conventional data centre operators. Software architects examine how an application and supporting infrastructure will function under load and set parameters for adding or reducing capacity as required.

*Originally published on March 8th 2017. Updated December 4th 2019.

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