For its bumper sale ‘Big Billion Day’ in October, eCommerce giant Flipkart had done extensive preparations. The retailer had moved nearly 50 tonnes of copper across the country for cabling, and additional 50 km of fibre-optic cable was laid, according to newspaper reports. Further, more than 2,000 systems, 3,500 scanners, 1,200 printers, 300 routers, 300 firewalls, and 300 switches were put to use, with an aim to make the sale a mega success. Despite all the preparations, online shopping giant’s site crumbled on the big day.
The reason: The volume of traffic was much higher than expected. As per the company’s blog, the site witnessed unprecedented 1.5 mn people on a single day, leading to website crash. Flipkart is not the only eCommerce firm, several major players in the space have experienced downtime on big traffic days. Although seasonal traffic spikes are common for eCommerce sites, with most of them getting a large proportion of their business during holiday seasons or major festivals, it is during the periods of huge online promotions and sales that the website receives unpredictable demand spikes.
Agrees Mandar Behere, Vice President-Product & Technology, Giftease, “While seasonal spikes are predictable (eg, Valentine’s Day, Great Online Shopping Festival, etc), what we worry most about are the occasional spikes we are unaware of. For example, all eCommerce players saw a huge increase in traffic when Flipkart held their Big Billion Day. Seasonal traffic can be handled using a variety of techniques which essentially include forecasting the traffic, benchmarking your hardware, and planning the re-quired hardware capacity based on that. However, this is not possible for an occasional spike.”
The Website Traffic Conundrum
While most eCommerce websites conduct tests to gauge their preparedness for surges in traffic, they are not exactly accurate due to their inability to capture unexpected volumes. Supam Maheshwari, CEO & Founder, FirstCry.com, puts its very aptly, when he says, “eCommerce in India is like a giant snowball rolling downhill. It gathers heavy momentum by attracting high value customers (mass) and who do frenzied buying. The driver for this frenzy is a heady cocktail of high quality products, deep discounts aided by a generous marketing spend. Established models do help to estimate traffic using conversion funnels and wild estimates put the traffic to 10 to 20x of average day during campaigns. The value seeking customers, however, can surprise the biggest pundits by spiking the traffic to say 100x.”
Resonating the same thought, Behere says, “No matter how prepared you are, you would land up in a situation where your deployed capacity is running at 100% utilization and you are not in a position to cater to more traffic. Or your database becomes the bottleneck and it is not easy to enhance database capacity on the fly, unless one is already running a distributed database system.”
In this extremely competitive marketplace, an unplanned outage means a lost revenue opportunity for retailers. Plus, if the retailers cannot cope with spikes in traffic, they don’t just lose business, they lose credibility. Given this scenario, scaling with traffic spikes is a must factor for all eCommerce sites. That said, this puts eCommerce players in a tight spot. While scaling up the infrastructure and deploying a huge number of servers is not practical as a number of servers would be underutilized during offseason, not scaling is also not a wise idea as it can result in huge losses due to missed sales on account of an outage.
“Capacity planning is a complex activity, as underprovisioning can lead to loss in business, while overprovisioning
can be expensive leading to unutilized resources in non-peak periods. Additionally, in a dynamic environment, hardware resources cannot be scaled up or modified dynamically. For example, it is extremely difficult to predict how many servers, CPU power, RAM or storage will be required in the near future,” emphasizes Piyush Somani, MD & CEO, ESDS.
How Cloud can Help
Cloud computing can help online retailers address these integral challenges. Cloud empowers eCommerce players to effectively manage peak and trough periods by enabling them to spin up and decrease servers virtually on cloud as per the demand.
“The only option to handle traffic spikes is to make the architecture horizontally scalable. On-demand availability of servers of required configuration is the key for horizontal scalability and cloud is the only way one can achieve it,”states Behere of Giftease. He further adds, “If you are prepared for scaling up horizontally, you could fire up as many servers as you want within a matter of few minutes, thus catering to increased traffic even at a short notice.”
Auto scaling on the cloud allows eCommerce firms to scale resources in accordance with the load on server.This not only ensures highest utilization of resources, but eventually leads to lower TCO. “Auto scaling in the cloud can help eCommerce firms achieve the fine balance between provisioning too little (leading to possible outages) and provisioning too much (under-utilization of resources and risk of wasting money). The cloud makes it possible for eCommerce players to scale up the infrastructure according to the volume of traffic. This flexibility can help eCommerce firms cut down infrastructure costs and improve site availability by a huge margin, leading to better customer satisfaction, which in turn can lead to better revenues and profits,”says Somani.
Take the example of how cloud has brought in unprecedented agility to the business of FirstCry. As the retailer has adopted a hybrid model of IT infrastructure, it is able to negotiate the peaks and valleys in the most efficient manner. While the dedicated hosting keeps its recurring costs low, the auto scaling model on cloud lets it profit from the peaks. Also, the physical servers that used to take weeks to acquire and days to configure, can now be cranked up in a few minutes on cloud. “The speed at which our business can deploy servers has zoomed up 60x. Server deployment on cloud happens in three minutes as against three hours on physical hosting,”reveals Maheshwari of FirstCry.com.
Maheshwari further adds, “The beauty of cloud services lies in horizontal scalability. As we see spikes in our customer actions we are able to quickly deploy pre-configured stack instances (combination of operating system, server clock speed, RAM, and hard disk space). Our systems are configured to send alerts to key stakeholders when server utilization reaches 75% or above. In anticipated conditions, auto scaling process keeps adding stacks to handle increased load whereas when the cause of spike is not known, we get enough early warning to deploy additional stacks. This helps us prevent outages and keep FirstCry up 24x7x365.”
The only option to handle traffic spikes is to make the architecture horizontally scalable. On-demand availability of servers of required configuration is the key for horizontal scalability and cloud is the only way one can achieve it” Mandar Behere , Vice President – Product & Technology, Giftease.
Auto scaling in the cloud can help eCommerce firms achieve the fine balance between provisioning too little and provisioning too much. The cloud makes it possible for eCommerce players to scale up the infrastructure according to the volume of traffic —Piyush Somani MD & CEO, ESDS.
Similarly, online food ordering portal TastyKhana.in is leveraging cloud to manage traffic spikes. The company was earlier using monitoring tools to keep a track of traffic spikes, however, these tools only alert once the spike has occurred, which is too late to actually repair the damage.“To overcome these problems we switched to AWS to solve our IT infrastructure needs. With their auto scale feature, and the right configuration we can easily handle traffic spikes both planned as well as unplanned. This reduces the load on the IT team and over time helps us weak our infrastructure for optimal usage, which in turn reduces our infra costs,” states Sheldon D’Souza, CTO & Co-founder at TastyKhana.in.
A digital marketing and analytics platform for major eCommerce companies, Sokrati, is another example that shows the potential of cloud in the space. “Cloud plays a vital role in a start-up. Building and maintaining datacenters can get nightmarish. With cloud, all the maintenance can be offloaded to cloud and companies can concentrate on building products at scale with lesser turnaround time,” says Kaushik Paranjape, Co-founder & CTO, Sokrati.
Sokrati is using AWS’ ELB (Elastic Load Balancer) and auto scaling for handling traffic spikes. “ELB + + Auto scaling of AWS can be configured to have minimum and maximum number of boxes. Auto scaling setup would bring up boxes and shut them down basis some rules. These rules can be set for network usage, disk usage, memory usage, and CPU usage. Basically this setup helps you auto-scale not only network intensive jobs, but other computational jobs as well,” explains Paranjape. For eCommerce companies, where downtime is equivalent to lost revenue opportunity and customer dissatisfaction, the elasticity offered by a technology like cloud computing can definitely make a huge difference. In this competitive landscape, where margins are ever shrinking and customers are increasingly expecting 100% uptime, eCommerce firms need to quickly take the plunge to cloud to cut down infrastructure costs and ensure better revenues and profits.