When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Go Shopping: Getting Ready for the Online Onslaught

By Peter Bernstein November 26, 2013

Tis the season to go shopping! Here in the U.S., the holiday shopping season gets in full swing not on  Black Friday -- the day after Thanksgiving, which traditionally is one of the biggest shopping days of the year-- but because of the short holiday season, and to the consternation of many, on Thanksgiving itself. It will be followed in short order by Small Business Saturday, a discount day developed to encourage people to shop their local merchants, and of course, Cyber Monday.

No moniker has been given to the retailers that have decided to open on Thanksgiving; “Turkey Thursday” seems appropriate, although for people forced to work on a day devoted to being grateful and spent with family it might be called, “Thankless Thursday.” The fact of the matter is that even the throngs physically going to stores are going to be hitting the websites of retailers hard, starting now.

We all know this is the make or break time of the year for many retailers, but an infographic from Motif Investing and Mint.com is a useful reminder.

Taking Stock of Holiday Trends – An infographic by the team at Motif Investing. Motif Investing is an online broker offering innovative online investing and stock trading services to turn ideas and global trends into investment opportunities.

With that said, cloud testing specialist SOASTA, which tests and protects revenue for nine of the top 10 Internet retailers, is out with a whitepaper, “The Top 10 Tips to Improve Web Application Performance.” The whitepaper arms readers with highly recommended suggestions SOASTA employs with the world’s biggest online retailers to assure their websites are ready for business during the holiday crush.

 Testing for the Lifecycle

The troubled rollout of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) online capabilities makes this almost unnecessary. However, it highlights the absolute need for collaboration throughout the entire software development lifecycle for critical transactional apps. Reality is there are no acceptable alternatives to performance-testing at every step of the way—from the test lab to production environment.

As SOASTA carefully adds, “Some issues, such as third-party services, content-delivery networks, and bandwidth constraints, will only manifest themselves in a production environment – not in a test lab or staging environment. By ensuring your test plan includes the production phase, you’re better positioned to discover and resolve issues that could otherwise never be surfaced until post-release – when your brand, revenue, and reputation are exposed to unacceptable risk.”

Is your website prepared?  

As noted above, the whitepaper describes the top 10 issues that development and testing teams should address in testing to assure maximum performance from their Web applications. With a few days to go, while it may be too late on some items, the SOASTA recommendations are a nice checklist. 

Tip No. 1: Bandwidth -- Make Sure Everyone Can Get In

What happens when you experience surges in traffic? When high-interest, media-intensive content draws thousands of simultaneous users, or when a social media campaign pulls in prospects – do you have a pipe that’s big enough for the traffic you’ll see?

SOASTA says a key to pay attention to is the use of unnecessarily large high-res files since they hog bandwidth. It also warns that jittery video can turn off would-be buyers, especially if you are a global company where users can arrive from different countries that have low bandwidth, making efficient performance more important than ever. Access via wireless devices has only made this more critical, and puts a premium on knowing/anticipating where your traffic is coming from so emulations can be properly run to anticipate and remediate potential problems.

Tip No. 2: Load Balancing -- Make Sure Everyone Pulls Their Weight

Yes, load balancers are plumbing. However, they are absolutely essential and at a minimum, it is suggested that you monitor and track your load balancers, looking specifically at CPU and memory consumption and SSL transactions.

Tip No. 3: Watch for Application Issues

There’s no such thing as perfect code. SOASTA urges testing everything in your app to find inefficient code, synchronization issues, code that’s locking or blocking other functions (e.g. an e-commerce ordering system that can only process one order at the time) garbage collection memory leaks, or application deadlocks that bring your code to a standstill. It stresses that while all of this may seem obvious, you need to be mindful of errors when you’re migrating your application from development to production to avoid major headaches down the road.

4: Measure Database Performance

How would you answer the question, “When was the last time you directly stress-tested your database?” The right answer should be, “Very recently.” Database bloat can greatly impede processing speeds, and the last thing you need during the holidays is for your technology to go on a slowdown that was caused by benign neglect. In fact, to fight this problem, SOASTA notes that many companies are finding it advantageous to implement careful “data lifecycle” programs that balance the sometimes-conflicting needs to compress and archive less-frequently used data with the need for optimal responsiveness for more current data.

Tip No. 5: Assess Your Architecture

To directly quote SOASTA, “On the perimeter of the corporate software infrastructure, it’s essential to factor in architectural considerations. Unbalanced tiers, mismatched technology choices, scalability limitations, suboptimal designs, and inefficient network configurations can all ultimately manifest themselves in poor application performance. With proper testing in place, you can bring these issues to the surface before they impact the user experience.”

Tip No. 6: Ensure Proper Connectivity

To put it bluntly, the number of connection points in a Web application is a crucial factor in Web application performance, and even simple changes (like for the holidays) can have major repercussions which need to be anticipated in the testing process.

Tip No. 7: Don’t Overlook Configuration Settings

Configuration settings help improve performance and strengthen security. The default setting may not be optimized for your unique environment and need to be adjusted, again as indicated through thorough testing.

Tip No. 8: Watch out for Shared Environments

With many major sites employing complex architectures, you must be fully aware of all of the shared environments that can impact your application’s performance. It’s critical to not only communicate with stakeholders, but also be cognizant of your internal partners who share the same technical resources.

Tip No. 9: Verify Third-Party Services

Many websites rely on third-party providers that connect to the site to provide additional data and crucial services, such as Google Analytics, credit card processing or social media widgets. These third-party services sit outside your architecture, but you must include them in your test plans – because they have a direct impact on your Web application performance. It is why end-to-end testing from the lab/development to pre-production staging to production should be performed.

Tip No. 10: Create a Performance Culture

This one is another one that should be obvious, and in many ways way be the most difficult to execute. As SOASTA says it, “Starts with identifying who owns Web performance metrics in your organization. Empower that individual or team to gain the expertise they need and acquire the tools needed to execute a comprehensive, end-to-end test plan.”

In the next few days, the websites of retailers large and small are going to be put to the test. This is not just in terms of transactions, but also for people visiting websites to do comparative shopping from home or increasingly in-store.  Lack of website responsiveness could be the difference between getting the sale or losing it. It is why such a premium should be place on testing.  There is an old saying that is attributed to former U.S. president Ronald Reagan in regard to his discussions with the Soviet Union about a nuclear arms agreement, “Trust but Verify.”  With the shopping season upon us, the last thing you need is for you website to go nuclear on you at the most important time of the year.  If it has not been so far, end-to-end testing of your website to ensure it is ready for whatever may come its way, and can deliver the compelling users experiences you require, might be something to put on your holiday shopping list.   

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