Preventing Downtime: How to Build a Resilient eCommerce Back-End
No one wants their eCommerce store to crash on a major sales day. Yet it happens time and time again.
Even the biggest brands’ websites are liable to go down. In the last holiday season alone, both Costco and Nordstrom Rack suffered outages on Black Friday that prevented consumers from making purchases, reports Footwear News Digital News Editor Samantha McDonald.
Downtime doesn’t just cost your brand sales. Startup Advisor Yoav Vilner notes other related costs:
- Damage to your brand reputation.
- Lost productivity.
- Compliance and regulatory failure.
There’s also the lost time and cost incurred on determining the cause of the crash and fixing the issue.
Downtime isn’t inevitable, however. Make sure your eCommerce store stays online during even the busiest sales periods by building a resilient back-end infrastructure.
Choose a Headless eCommerce Solution
If you have enough time in advance of your next major sales day, consider upgrading your eCommerce infrastructure to a headless solution. Coupled front-end and back-end eCommerce websites are a thing of the past. If you want to make your site as resilient and flexible as possible, choosing a headless eCommerce solution is a must.
A headless eCommerce solution separates your front-end eCommerce store from your back-end operations, explains Growcode Co-Founder and Partner Pawel Ogonowski. Unlike a traditional eCommerce solution, where everything is connected via code, a headless solution uses APIs to connect your consumer-facing store to your CMS, ERP and other systems.
This makes your eCommerce solution more resilient in two ways. Firstly, you can make changes to either the front-end or the back-end of your eCommerce store without affecting the other, notes the team at eCommerce web design company Virtina. If thousands of customers suddenly land on your site, back-end systems can be upgraded without impacting your consumer-facing store. Changes can also be made to the front-end of the store, such as adding promotions, without affecting back-end performance.
Secondly, there’s no need to download, upgrade or patch the dozens of separate plug-ins that a coupled eCommerce typically requires. All critical systems, like your CRM, analytics and fulfillment tools, are connected via APIs, allowing data to be transferred quickly and seamlessly, says Kunal Khullar, Co-Founder of The Brihaspati Infotech, an IT consulting and service provider. You’ll also never need to update the API once it has been established.
This also solves two problems inherent with plug-ins. It means that one out-of-date plugin isn’t going to cause your site to crash. It also means your site’s CMS won’t be bloated with plug-ins that slow it down.
Each plug-in has code and other assets like images that need to be loaded and run every time someone opens a page of your site, explains web developer Jacob Martella. The more you have, the longer it will take to load. Those same plug-ins get updated regularly often with patches that fix existing security flaws. Running out-dated plug-ins puts your site at risk to hackers.
Make Sure Your Infrastructure Scales
Regardless of what back-end eCommerce solution you have in place, you’ll want to make sure it’s scalable and flexible enough to handle sudden surges in traffic.
A common reason for site failure is a gap between traffic levels and your site’s capacity, writes Jennifer Zaino at BizTech. “Traffic levels can be 30 times higher on big sale days than on other days. More users, fewer server resources, insufficient bandwidth equals a crash or delay.”
When traffic spikes, small, insufficient servers won’t be able to handle requests to load pages, notes Senior Marketing Technologist Tushar Sonal. If you know that your server won’t be able to handle the amount of traffic you’re expecting, then it’s important to upgrade your server ahead of time or be ready to deploy additional servers on the day.
Load balancers can decrease downtime during peak levels of traffic, writes Joy Ma at cyber security provider Imperva. A failover system can also be used to send a portion of users to a secondary server to increase site speed and performance.
If you are anticipating high traffic levels, you can also optimize your website in a way that reduces server load ahead of time. This was the approach that Steve Chou took when his website, Bumblebee Linens, was featured on The NBC Today Show. Rather than risking a full server upgrade at short notice, Chou cached the entire site apart from checkout pages so that it could be quickly served to visitors without putting excess strain on the site’s servers.
Finally, you’ll want to take steps to handle bot traffic, write Forrester’s Sandy Carielli and Madeline Cyr. Web firewalls aren’t enough in high-traffic situations, which is why they recommend bot management tools. These will automatically detect good bots, like search engine crawlers, from malicious bots. They’ll even go as far as to limit good bot access if they are impeding the speed of your site.
Test Every Part of Your Site
You’ll never know if your back-end is truly resilient until you test to see if it can cope with traffic levels well in excess of the norm. Bob Buffone, CTO of web optimization company Yottaa, goes as far as to say that if you haven’t tested your site at five times normal traffic levels, it will probably crash.
JPMorgan Executive Director of Global Technology Todd DeCapua believes that most crashes can be avoided by testing sites thoroughly ahead of major sales holidays. Specifically, he recommends cloud testing as a way to simulate real-world use so that you can determine how well your site responds and at what traffic levels it crashes.
The team at QA InfoTech recommends using historical data to estimate just how much traffic your site is likely to receive. Then, make sure all components of your back-end, including hardware like servers, databases and your network bandwidth can handle that expected load.
Don’t forget to test your sales cart, writes Alexandra McPeak at TotalRetail. While this is a key part of your consumer-facing website, it is very much a back-end technology — and one that needs to be working seamlessly if you are expecting a surge in traffic.
Many major shopping events aren’t so much about what consumers spend, but how much they can save, says McPeak. Consumers are, therefore, likely to fill shopping carts with dozens of products, even if they don’t intend on buying them all. This means you need to have confident answers to the following questions:
- What happens to carts when users leave the website?
- How long are the contents of their cart saved?
- Can limited quantity items be saved in carts?
- Do carts have a limit on the number of items that can be added?
- Can users buy large amounts of a single item?
If you don’t know what happens in these scenarios, you don’t really know if your website will make it through major sales days.
The Back-End of eCommerce Doesn’t Stop With Your Website
An upsurge in visitors doesn’t just impact your website’s performance; it can also lead to problems in other areas of your eCommerce operation.
Fulfillment is one of the biggest headaches of the holiday season, says Casey Kelly-Barton at HostGator. It’s all too easy for order distribution to become a major bottleneck that delays shipping and leads to unhappy customers. Having a plan to overcome this is essential if you want to keep consumers coming back to your store.
A headless eCommerce solution can help solve this issue. Connecting systems using APIs rather than plug-ins means that your fulfillment service will have direct and instant access to orders, notes Dion Beary at marketing solutions provider Justuno. Everything can be processed in real time as soon as the orders are made. That means when a flood of traffic results in a deluge of orders, your fulfillment process won’t be left struggling to stay afloat.
Customer support is another back-end area you’ll want to improve ahead of major sales days, says Ronald Dod, CMO and Co-Founder of eCommerce marketing agency Visiture. The more visitors you have, the more support requests your team will need to handle. One solution is to help visitors solve their own queries by updating your FAQ.
This might not be enough, which is why Dod also recommends scaling up your existing support team to handle the additional calls, emails and live chat messages you’re likely to receive.
Outsource Your Back-End to Cloud eCommerce
Big eCommerce brands risk too much by building their entire eCommerce back-end in-house. So many moving parts mean it’s virtually impossible for any sized team to handle.
That’s why the biggest and most successful brands work with headless eCommerce cloud platforms that provide a flexible and scalable back-end solution in addition to the native apps and Business-as-a-Service solutions that cover the full gamut of eCommerce back-end operations.