Online retail has exploded in popularity over the past decade. More and more people are choosing to shop online for convenience, selection, and competitive pricing. For online retailers, hosting their ecommerce site properly is absolutely critical for success. If the site goes down frequently or loads slowly, customers will quickly lose patience and take their business elsewhere.
One of the biggest challenges for online retailers is managing traffic spikes around major sales and promotions. These events will drive a flood of visitors to the site, stressing servers and potentially causing outages if capacity is insufficient. Proper planning and preparation is required to handle these traffic surges smoothly.
In this guide, we will explore hosting considerations and best practices for online retail sites. Topics covered include:
- Understanding traffic patterns and planning capacity
- Choosing the right hosting infrastructure
- Implementing caching and content delivery networks
- Monitoring performance and rapidly provisioning capacity
- Optimizing site architecture for scalability and redundancy
- Managing cybersecurity threats
With the right hosting strategy and execution, online retailers can confidently run large promotions and sales without worrying about the infrastructure crumbling under the load. Let’s dive in and explore how to create a hosting environment tailored for the unique needs of ecommerce.
Traffic Patterns and Capacity Planning
In order to properly size hosting infrastructure, online retailers need to understand traffic patterns and identify peak demand. Some key considerations when forecasting traffic:
- Overall growth trends – As the business expands, baseline traffic will steadily rise over time. Review historic growth rates and forecast future growth.
- Seasonal fluctuations – Traffic will surge around holidays and follow seasonal shopping patterns. Identify peak seasons and plan for sufficient capacity.
- Promotions/sales – Major sitewide promotions, coupon events, and big sales will temporarily spike traffic. Analyze past events and projections to estimate demand.
- New product launches – Releasing a hot new product can overwhelm servers. Work closely with marketing to anticipate product rollout impacts.
- Unplanned viral events – It’s impossible to predict when a site or product will “go viral”, so capacity needs padding to absorb unusual spikes.
- Global expansion – Entering new international markets may drastically alter traffic profiles and peaks.
With this knowledge, retailers can come up with traffic forecasts across daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly views. These projections determine the baseline capacity requirements. It’s critical to pad projections sufficiently to handle unexpected spikes and growth surges. Underestimating leads to outages while overestimating wastes money.
Choosing Hosting Infrastructure
Online retailers have a few primary options when it comes to hosting infrastructure:
- Shared hosting – Websites reside on shared servers used by hundreds of other sites. Very low cost but unreliable for ecommerce.
- Dedicated servers – Physical servers are fully dedicated to hosting a single site. Provides stable performance but requires capacity planning.
- Cloud hosting – Websites run on virtual server instances inside a public cloud platform like AWS, Azure, or Google Cloud. Resources can scale dynamically.
- Hybrid hosting – Combining dedicated servers with cloud servers or content delivery networks. Provides best of both worlds.
For most online retailers, a hybrid model is ideal. Critical components like the product database and order processing systems can run on dedicated servers. This avoids instability from “noisy neighbors” on shared platforms. Dynamic parts of the site that need scalability like web servers and caching can run in the cloud.
Within the cloud, auto-scaling groups are useful for flexing capacity up and down based on demand. Cloud load balancers distribute traffic across resources. Modern cloud platforms make scaling seamless, but costs can exceed dedicated servers at high capacities. Thoroughly evaluate options before choosing hosting infrastructure.
Implementing Caching and CDNs
Two optimization strategies that help online retailers manage traffic spikes are caching and content delivery networks (CDNs).
Caching stores frequently accessed data like product images, descriptions, and category pages in a high-speed memory cache. Subsequent requests fetch cached data instead of querying overloaded databases and application servers. Caching improves site performance and reduces strain on infrastructure.
Retailers can implement caching layers like Redis or Varnish at the database and application tiers. CDNs also provide distributed caching globally. Caching configuration should ensure data remains up-to-date and consistent. Stale, outdated cached data creates problems.
CDNs (content delivery networks) distribute cached site content globally on edge servers located closer to end users compared to origin servers. Instead of all traffic hitting central servers, CDNs route traffic to the nearest edge for faster performance. Leading CDN providers include Cloudflare, Fastly, and Akamai.
Integrating a CDN offloads traffic, enhances performance, and improves infrastructure resilience. The site remains up even if central servers go down. Configure CDNs carefully to cache only cacheable content, not dynamic pages. Compare CDN providers based on global reach, caching control, security services, and cost.
Monitoring Performance and Rapid Scaling
With infrastructure in place, retailers must closely monitor site performance metrics to respond quickly to traffic spikes. Useful metrics to track in real-time include:
- Overall visitor traffic – Views, unique visitors, page requests. Spikes may indicate a capacity issue.
- Bandwidth utilization – Rising bandwidth consumption stresses networks.
- Load times – Slow page loads frustrate customers.
- Error rates – 500/503 errors signal overload.
- Orders per minute – Transaction volume impacts databases.
- Server load – High CPU, memory, or disk usage degrades performance.
Tools like New Relic, Datadog, and CloudWatch provide monitoring and alerts. When metrics edge toward warning thresholds, auto-scaling rules kick in to dynamically add capacity in the cloud. Monitoring proactively avoids outages.
Have documented scaling procedures to quickly roll out additional resources. On-call engineer teams need training to handle “all hands on deck” situations when usage spikes overnight. Failing over to disaster recovery (DR) sites is the last resort for absorbig massive traffic.
Plan minimum and maximum capacity limits based on forecasting to control cloud spending and prevent over-provisioning. Strike a balance between overpaying and under-provisioning.
Optimizing Architecture for Scalability
In addition to infrastructure alone, the software architecture itself influences scalability. Well-designed systems gracefully scale up without cracking under heavy load. Some best practices include:
- Horizontal scaling – Scale by adding more inexpensive commodity servers instead of vertically “scaling up” single monolithic servers. Horizontal scaling provides redundancy and better performance.
- Microservices – Break the website into independently scalable microservices by function. For example, the product catalog can scale separately from the shopping cart.
- Asynchronous processing – Have front-end requests queue tasks like payment processing asynchronously instead of waiting for responses. This prevents request bottlenecks.
- DB sharding – Partition databases across multiple DB servers to spread read/write loads.
- Stateless architecture – Avoid storing client state on application servers. Use databases for persistence instead. Stateless apps can freely add/remove servers.
- Caching – Caching, as described earlier, reduces database hits and improves performance dramatically.
- CDN – Distributing traffic across CDNs prevents central infrastructure from overloading.
Continuously tune and refine architecture for optimal scalability. Perform load testing regularly to catch issues. Fixing architecture flaws alleviates infrastructure headaches.
Securing Infrastructure and Applications
As infrastructure scales out to handle load spikes, attack surfaces expand, and retailers become more vulnerable to cyber threats looking to exploit potential weaknesses. Some key aspects of securing scaled environments:
- Harden servers, close unnecessary ports, dial up firewall rules, and carefully monitor access. Prevent attackers from breaching infrastructure.
- Encrypt sensitive customer data both at rest and in transit. Prevent theft of personal and financial data.
- Enforce strong authentication and authorize access to infrastructure components and data. Limit damage from breaches.
- Monitor infrastructure for anomalous activity indicating intrusions or denial of service attacks. Catch threats early.
- Ensure software applications have robust security protections against common web vulnerabilities like SQL injection, cross-site scripting (XSS), and cross-site request forgery (CSRF).
- Conduct regular penetration testing to find security holes before criminals do. Lock down vulnerabilities.
- Have an incident response plan ready for if a breach does occur. Quickly isolate, contain damage, and notify affected customers.
With ecommerce data compromises still frequently in the news, retailers must implement rigorous security precautions. Bolstering infrastructure and app security enables safely handling high traffic loads.
A downside of building out hosting infrastructure to manage load spikes is exploding costs. It’s expensive to operate high-capacity environments designed for peak usage when the majority of time is spent at average loads.
Some tips for keeping hosting costs in check:
- Architect for scalability from the start to avoid having to over-provision capacity.
- Take advantage of auto-scaling and turn off unused resources so you only pay for what you need moment to moment.
- Use spot instances and reserved instances on cloud platforms to reduce compute costs.
- Evaluate whether some workloads like batch processing can be delayed or scheduled for off-peak times.
- Consider migrating non-critical workloads to lower cost platforms when traffic subsides after a spike.
- Compare pricing across cloud providers regularly and be ready to switch if costs grow too high on your current platform.
- Investigate if third-party managed hosting providers can effectively handle peaks at lower cost than self-managed infrastructure.
With careful monitoring, cost optimization, and capacity planning, the spikes don’t have to wreck budgets. Prioritize scalability, performance, and security over costs initially while refining expenses once stable.
Managing infrastructure for an online retailer during traffic spikes takes planning, foresight, and constant diligence. By forecasting demand, implementing caching and CDNs, auto-scaling cloud resources, monitoring closely, optimizing architecture, and securing everything efficiently, ecommerce sites can comfortably handle even extreme promotions and sales.
When done right, customers won’t notice infrastructure at all as they enjoy browsing and buying during peak events. Technical staff may sweat behind the scenes. But with sound hosting strategies, retailers can focus on driving revenue rather than fighting fires.
Infrastructure and architecture decisions have long-term consequences. Invest wisely in scalable and redundant hosting, and the business will be positioned to smoothly absorb future growth. Trying to retrofit scaling after the fact results in wasted time and money.
By learning from past traffic patterns and being ready to provision quickly, retailers can confidently drive more sales through promotions without the usual meltdowns. And that leads to very happy customers and growing online revenue.