Is Your Ecommerce Software a Ticking Time Bomb?

One of our ecommerce clients recently had the opportunity to have national exposure on NBC’s Jill’s Steals and Deals. This segment on the Today Show on NBC often results in a very high volume of buyers in a very short period of time.

We’ve had a number of clients over the past few years appear on national shows like Oprah, Food Network, NBC, etc… We’ve got some experience with this sort of thing, so we know what to expect and how to plan for it.

Or so we thought…

The “Plan”

The plan was to leverage our CDN (Content Delivery Network) for the deal page to reside on. We worked with the client to create a simple landing page where the tens of thousands of customers would initially click to. We knew the CDN would work well, and there would be no issues with availability on the landing page.

We set up a dedicated managed server for the client, quad core CPU, 4 GB of RAM, etc… This would be used solely for the cart/checkout process. Based on previous results, this would be more than enough to handle the onslaught.

The Curveball

Previously, most of our clients were running ShopSite as their ecommerce solution. ShopSite is great because it creates static html pages, it is compiled C code (meaning it’s fast and very lightweight), and the cart/checkout process uses almost no resources even under heavy load.

We’ve had a few clients use custom cart solutions, and those performed well enough to get through the huge number of buyers.

But this time, the client switched their ecommerce application from a custom one to Magento. Magento is an open-source (aka “free”) ecommerce application that some designers/developers love. We’ve had a few dedicated server clients use Magento, but we did not have any experience with Magento combined with heavy traffic.

It would only be the cart/checkout though… How bad could it be?

The day arrives

In past events, we’ve been able to tweak the webserver to handle 1,000 – 2,000 simultaneous events (translating to 10,000 + visitors at a time) without crashing. We always err on the safe side, so we set the webserver to max out at 500 to start with.

The deal went live, the CDN went to work, and people started ordering. Right away the load on the server skyrocketed, and more shocking was the 4 GB of RAM was almost instantly consumed! The end result, before we could even reign in the server, it crashed.

(scramble, scramble, scramble) – We reboot the server, set the webserver to a max of 100 connections, and see how it does. Even at this low setting, the load was quite high, and memory was being eaten up like a tasty turkey dinner. We were only able to increase the number of connections to 160 without overloading the server.  :(

The post-mortem

After some initial struggles, and even with the low number of connections, the client still managed to have a successful deal, selling thousands of products. So it wasn’t a failure. *phewww*

We did learn that Magento is terrible as an ecommerce platform when it comes to scaling gracefully under heavy traffic. Even with just the cart/checkout being used in Magento, the software was a hog, using up inordinate amounts of RAM and CPU with even moderate traffic.

Compare this to ShopSite, and it’s night and day. We’ve seen ShopSite cruise with thousands of visitors all buying at the same time.

Both the client and us here at LexiConn did not know how poorly Magento would perform. It was a ticking time bomb just waiting to explode once heavy traffic showed up. Had we known this up-front, we would have suggested a more robust solution with much more RAM and some different server optimizations to try to weather the storm.

Knowing the limitations and strengths of your ecommerce solution is vital to insure success. Not all the new shiny and popular software packages are what they appear to be. Many come with severe consequences and limitations when it comes to your specific needs. Make sure you understand this, and have a plan to work around it.

Just as importantly, make sure your host understands your needs and has the experience / flexibility to act fast when that curveball comes your way.

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2 Comments

  1. Jose Nino says:

    We were very relieved to find our Shopsite powered store to be 100% stable and crash free during our Oprah television campaign, which rendered thousands of simultaneous sessions. We’ve hosted several other media campaigns since then without any trouble.

    Thanks Lexiconn.

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