Preparing for one of the web's busiest days

The Red Nose Day website has become the main focus for the public's donations. And with the number of broadband users increasing...

The Red Nose Day website has become the main focus for the public's donations. And with the number of broadband users increasing every year, performance is essential

Since the last Red Nose Day in 2003, the charity website has been gearing up for a massive influx of traffic on 11 March from people logging on to make donations.

Already, two-thirds of the 80,000 requests for information packs have come from online users, reflecting a shift in the way the UK public uses the internet.

Amanda Horton-Mastin, director of new media development for Comic Relief, said she was expecting a huge growth in online activity on the night. "There has been a change in consumer habits [since 2003]," she said.

"The website has become a very popular resource. It enables people to get tools, ideas and information and allows the community to tell us about their fundraising events.

"It also provides a permanent place for people to make donations and see content which is only available online, ranging from video clips to greater detail about how the Red Nose Day cash is spent."

Horton-Mastin said now that more people have broadband, the Red Nose Day website is able to use more online forms.

Martin Gill, head of new media at Comic Relief, said, "As each year goes by, more people see the website as the main source of information." This has meant that people stay logged on for longer. In 2003 he said a typical online user session on the night of Red Nose Day was six to seven minutes.

In July 2004, during Sports Relief, Gill said online session time for users of the website increased to 12 minutes. He anticipates a further increase for this year's Red Nose Day, with people spending up to 15 minutes on the site.

From past experience, Comic Relief has to plan for the Red Nose Day website being one of the busiest e-commerce websites in Europe, and one of the busiest in the world on Friday 11 March. The site had to be designed to handle a spike in traffic and serve rich media content to users.

Because of donation traffic driven by the BBC1 programme on the day itself, the site receives several peaks in the number of users during the six-hour evening of entertainment.

However, the number of visits is not in itself a great problem; the density of the traffic and the type of interaction the users have with the site provides the technical challenge.

One of the challenges is that the online sessions are mostly secure (Secure Sockets Layer) or rich-media focused, which means the site not only has high demands on network bandwidth, but also requires a farm of web servers and enterprise database provision.

Gill said resilience was an important aspect of the website design. "The site is geared to take millions of pounds of donations, so we need failovers in place and a back-up infrastructure," he said.

The site is important to the Red Nose Day efforts and it is integrated into the Red Nose campaign, providing a way to inspire, motivate, equip and educate supporters in offering additional routes to engage with Red Nose Day.

After the event, the site becomes a resource for donors to find out more about how their donations are spent. At the end of the year, the site will be refreshed with the latest totals raised and the education resources transferred to the Comic Relief site.

Comic Relief's back-up structure

With the charity relying on the website for thousands of donations on the day and throughout the year, the IT behind the site has to have several tiers of reliability.

The website has a second datacentre and three versions of the donations application.

First is the media-rich version; the second is a site that offers less rich content but can still allow donations to be made when site traffic increases; and finally there is a stripped down C program, working behind the scenes, which gathers data as quickly as possible.

The site uses an Oracle 10g application server and 10g database and Cisco for networking and security. Sun Microsystems has provided the server hardware and Macromedia is used for the design.

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