Lessons of the World Cup Web peaks

Distracted office workers eager to get the latest World Cup news have created more activity over the Internet than there was on...

Distracted office workers eager to get the latest World Cup news have created more activity over the Internet than there was on the pitch in the past few weeks, writes Ross Bentley.

The site of the international football governing body Fifa came to a standstill as supporters furiously tried to get tickets, and even the BBC was showing signs of strain, running its reduced-graphics service at peak times.

But online traffic jams are not the preserve of football sites. Any site unprepared for peaks in visitor activity runs the risk of buckling under the pressure, just like David Beckham's famous metatarsal.

Vange Yianni, technology manager at software and services supplier Compuware, believes that online businesses can learn a lot by watching how sites that are in high-demand cope with peaks in traffic.

"We tested the response times of a number of sites where fans typically go for football updates and we found that even the BBC, a site that is used to dealing with millions of visitors every hour, had response times of over 100 seconds at times of high demand," he says.

The BBC responded to this demand by reducing content on the home page at peak periods.

"Organisations often look to extra capacity when demand increases, but the BBC has shown that there are other answers," says Yianni. "Taking a sensible approach to Web site management by continuously monitoring sites and adjusting content in relation to demand can help to reduce response times significantly.

The cost of increasing capacity to meet demand can be prohibitive for many Web sites and it does not make good business sense to invest in spare capacity that will only be required at peak times because the cost will often outweigh the benefits.

"However, not having the capacity to meet demand should not result in Web sites toppling like South American strikers," says Yianni. "It is simply a case of finding out the capacity of your 'ground' before you open the gates, as an inherent part of the pre-game pitch inspection. Test your site properly to find out when problems may occur and put the restrictions in place."

Yianni points out that sites are in high demand for a reason - people want to visit them. They are far more likely to come back if they are told that the service is only restricted due to high demand than if they just get a series of error messages.

"Just as carparks put a 'car park full' sign up when there is no room or queue cars on a 'one in, one out' basis, Web sites need to do the same," says Yianni.

If your Web site falls over this not only harms the company's reputation, it will also usually result in lost sales. Research by the Boston Consulting Group found that 28% of shoppers who have suffered failed purchase attempts stopped shopping at the Web site where they had problems, and 6% stopped buying from the company's store altogether.

According to Yianni, there are a number of things companies can do to ensure sites stay live. "Web sites should have built-in resilience to avoid unnecessary downtime due to infrastructure problems. Stand-by Web and application servers, disc mirroring, UPS (uninterruptible power supply) systems which kick-in automatically and effective business continuity planning can prevent, or at least minimise, disruption to normal services.

Other tactical alternatives include distributing content locally or adding additional capacity if you can predict peak times.

Design is also a factor. Just as most fans are more interested in Beckham's performance on the pitch than his latest hairstyle, most Web site visitors prefer better performance to increased usability.

"I would never suggest that site designers ignore usability when creating a site, but most Internet users are now pretty savvy and can find their way around a site very quickly. What matters most to them is performance," Yianni says.

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