Serving Clients Rather than Falling Over

Dawnstar Australis (yes, nickname – but I know him personally – he speaks with knowledge and authority) updates on The Real Victims Of The Click Frenzy Fail: The Australian Consumer after his earlier post from a few months ago.

Colourful language aside, I believe he rightfully points out the failings of the organising company and the big Australian retailers. From the Open Query perspective we can just review the situation where sites fall over under load. Contrary to what they say, that’s not a cool indication of popularity. Let’s compare with the real world:

  1. Brick & Mortar store does something that turns out popular and we see a huge queue outside, people need to wait for hours. The people in the queue can chat, and overall the situation can be regarded as positive: it shows passers-by that there’s something special going on, and that’s cool. If you don’t want to be in the crowd, you’ll come back later.
  2. Website is unresponsive/inaccessible. There’s nothing cool or positive about this, as the cause is not only unknown, but in fact irrelevant in the context. Each potential client is on their own. Things fail, so they go elsewhere (if there are substitutes) or potentially away completely (concert, it’ll sell out). The bad taste sticks, so if there are alternatives they will not only move there, but be quite vocal about it so others move also.

So you see, you really don’t want your site to go down because of popularity, or for any other reason. Slashdot years ago created a “degrade gracefully” mechanism, where parts of the site would go static. So where normally users would be able to comment and rate posts, they’d just be able to read. In the worst case, only the front page would remain active. On Sept 11 2001, Slashdot was one of the few big sites that actually remained accessible and provided regular news that people could then read even though the topic was not really in its normal scope. The point is, they proved the approach multiple times.

Contrarily, companies like Ticketek have surely got Enterprise Design architecture, however their site has been seen to fall over with events such as The Wiggles. They might be able to get away with this since they’re essentially a monopoly provider: if you want a ticket for this particular event, you need to go to them. But it’s not good. Generally they acted surprised, even though the huge load was entirely predictable. Is that just naive, or a hope to mislead the public, or negligent? You decide.

It’s really a failure in design of sorts. As to where exactly, only an architectural review would show, and it’ll be different for different sites. However, the real lesson is that it’s not about “Enterprise Design” at all, nor about using any particular high-profile hosting provider or involvement of other buzzwords. It’s about proper architecture and deployment and the database is only one aspects of this. It doesn’t have to end up particularly expensive either, it just has to be done right and there’s no single magical approach – each case is unique. Looking at this is best done early on (it tends to also work our better and cheaper), but we’ve helped clients out at much later stages also.  Ideally, we do like to help before there’s a raging fire.

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