There’s never a good time for a retailer's website to fall offline, but when it happened to high street bed retailer Dreams during a busy shopping weekend in spring 2014, it decided urgent action was needed to stop it happening again.
While the bulk of the company’s sales take place in-store, the site is relied on by 80-85% of Dreams customers to research purchases beforehand and find out where their nearest retail outlet is. So any downtime has the potential to cost the firm sales.
Dreams head of e-commerce Richard Voyce says the website’s operations at the time of the incident were underpinned by Magento’s e-commerce platform, with added support from managed cloud company Rackspace.
"As the business grew and our website traffic levels increased, we literally outgrew that particular solution,” he says. “Then we had the outage and that really was the motivation for embarking on an upgrade that could prepare us for peak traffic periods in the future.”
The specific cause of the outage centred on the way the Magento administration environment was set up at the time, says Voyce, as it was located on the same server as the customer-facing side of the website.
“We reached a point where we maxed everything out, and the knock-on effect was the administration side slowed, started to go down and took out other parts of the operations with it – everything ground to a halt, meaning customers couldn’t access the site either,” he says.
Updated Magento-Rackspace setup
Rather than rip everything out and start again, the company decided to move to an updated version of its Magento-Rackspace setup that would see the administration side of the website given its own dedicated and separate server resource.
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The customer-facing, front-end of the website, meanwhile, also has its own compute resources to draw on, made up of multiple, load-balanced web servers that provide it with even more redundancy during times of high traffic.
“By adding additional servers to the mix, you can spread the risk if one server goes down, but it also means you’ve got more capacity to deal with periods of high traffic,” says Voyce.
In Dreams’ case, traffic to the website tends to peak around Christmas, Easter and bank holiday weekends, and is buoyed by the extra sales promotions and advertising campaigns it regularly embarks on around these times.
“At other times of the year it’s fairly stable, and the benefit of this solution is that it’s scalable so we can deploy additional cloud servers at peak to deal with intense periods and scale back from there easily,” says Voyce.
“If we can predict we’re going to get a certain volume of traffic, we can add in an extra server or two to cope with that load.”
Reaping the rewards
And, so far, the move seems to have paid off, with Dreams reporting a 30% year-on-year rise in traffic compared with Easter 2014. Meanwhile, the number of site visitors who go on to make purchases was also up by 25% on the same period the year before.
Voyce partly credits this uptick in visitors and sales to having a more resilient site, but said the decision to move to a responsive design – to cater for the growing number of people who access it using their smartphones and tablets – has also helped.
I know some companies like to get under the hood and be more involved on the server side, but we just need it to work so we can get on with our day jobs
Richard Voyce, Dreams
The responsive design roll-out was started by the firm at the same time as its website server refresh project in November 2014. But if Voyce was to embark on a similar project again, he wouldn't do it quite so close to Christmas.
“There was an internal configuration change we needed to make on our side that wasn’t as straightforward as we thought was going to be, which held things up a bit,” he says. “We could have done with a little more breathing space, but it all came together in the end.”
The web team at Dreams is made up of eight members and their next priority will be improving the user experience for people visiting the site, says Voyce.
“One of the focuses for the remainder of the year is capitalising on the significant in-roads we’ve made with the new site, and one of the areas we’d like to continue to refine is around the basket and the checkout,” he adds.
“As we move into next year, we’d like to have more of a multi-channel approach where the digital stores and the bricks-and-mortar stores feel more aligned, so we’ll be looking at some projects that can help us deliver on that.”
And while Dreams is concentrating on that, the Rackspace team will be working to ensure the site remains up and running.
“I know some companies like to get under the hood and be more involved on the server side, but we just need it to work so we can get on with our day jobs. That’s the benefit of working with Rackspace. They make sure everything is working behind the scenes,” says Voyce.