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Top 50 eCommerce Tips - Part Ten, Servers

A Fast Site Is Achieved From The Tuning Of A Server, Not The Capacity Of Its Hardware.

When a site is running slow, often the common mistake is to give the server more power. While this can help, it’s not the most effective solution and it will certainly come at a big cost.

Increasing server power on a poor performing site is like giving a racing car a bigger engine whilst not looking at the fact the tyres have no tread left or that the gearbox is misconfigured.

Tuning is everything when it comes to sites and especially when it comes to eCommerce. To tune a server for an eCommerce site, you need to understand how server software complements your eCommerce code. Caching technologies like Varnish and Reddis can have a dramatic effect on page load speeds. They work by keeping a memory of the contents of your site’s pages – this means that if a customer returns to your site, rather than the server serving the content to them, the cache will. The cache works similar to short-term memory where it stores less but what it can recall is faster to access and deliver.

Increasing server power on a poor performing site is like giving a racing car a bigger engine whilst not looking at the fact the tyres have no tread left or that the gearbox is misconfigured.

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Server software configuration is an art within itself and it helps if the company setting this up has a deep understanding of the software platform you are running. It’s very similar to how you get to understand your customer so you can provide for their needs. Software platforms have needs based on the way they are built and it’s the job of your server to provide these needs efficiently and consistently.

Caching technologies are just one aspect of tuning a server and even within this they also need to be configured correctly according to the platform you are on. Having a high spec server with lots of software technologies installed is no guarantee that the end result is a fast site – it’s all about the harmony and synergy with the platform to server software & hardware. Ultimately, it’s a delicate relationship. If you can get this right, the result is a highly responsive site with a lower server cost expenditure.

Not All Bots Are Good. Filter Out The Ones Draining Your Site Speed

We’ve all heard of the Googlebots or Bingbots, but not many site owners are aware that on average 40% of server resources are used by unknown or ‘bad’ bots.

You might ask why your site would be crawled by these unknown bots. Given that your site is an eCommerce store, the rewards for ‘bad’ bots are high if they can access your code. The most malicious type of bot is one that will scan the web looking for vulnerabilities in a website’s code. It will crawl through your pages looking for a backdoor into your site. This can be as simple as a ‘contact us’ form the bot will try to inject malicious code into your site through the simple text fields.

This is a bit like sending in a drone through a house letterbox and then programming the drone to open the front door from the inside. A hack to a site will work in a similar way and it’s the ‘bad’ bots that will seek out whether your site is a target to do this. Once inside they can change payment methods, steal customer data… the list goes on.

As I said, this is one of the most malicious types of bots. Other bots will be a nuisance and try to crawl your site for black hat SEO reasons – for example, stealing content or trying to post reviews on product pages with bad links to unscrupulous websites.

While they crawl, it will be like having thousands of concurrent users on your site at once. Legitimate customers trying to shop will have their experience seriously impacted as the site will load slowly while serving the bot activity.

Luckily there are lots of cost-effective services out there that can filter all the traffic before it hits your site. Front-end software firewalls can act as a security guard to your site, monitoring who is a legitimate customer and who is showing suspicious characteristics. These firewall services have a growing database of known malicious IP addresses and bots, meaning they can intelligently block anything before it interacts with your site.

Two options we would recommend to provide this service are Sucuri and Foregenix. Whilst it might be an added expense, you will certainly save money on bandwidth not be used up by bots or from lost sales from a poor loading site.

Scale Your Server Using The Cloud. Give Sale Periods The Power They Need Whilst Being Able To Scale Back Down.

One of the biggest missed opportunities is when a retailer has attracted more traffic to their site and the site slows or becomes unresponsive due to limitations on the server.

A poor experience on a site not only means that a potential sale was lost in that given time but also could mean that customer would not return at a later date. It wouldn’t be economical to have all sites running on high-powered servers constantly to cater for these higher traffic periods, so there needs to be a solution where the server resources can be changed to suit the period of activity.

A retailer needs to be in a position where they can be proactive with known busy periods like Black Friday, Cyber Monday and Christmas but also be reactive if traffic has increased unexpectedly. Often we see that the server infrastructure can be very restrictive in allowing retailers to respond to the activity on their site. Upgrading or downgrading the resources on the server can often be slow, expensive (if you need to change your package with your server company) and of course disruptive.

Years ago there was no way to avoid this – you would have to request physical hardware was changed if you wanted to make any resource changes to your server. Thankfully, cloud providers such as Google Compute Engine and AWS to name a few offer a technology that allows any server to scale up to a supercomputer with ease in a matter of minutes. This is great news for retailers as it allows them to give their server all the power they need in busy periods whilst being able to scale back down to save on money in quieter periods.

Whatever server setup you choose to go for, just always ensure the flexibility and scalability is there when you need it. There are many server companies out there offering cheap inflexible hosting that sounds good on the surface, but it’s this cheap hosting that will be expensive for you in the long run if you lose customers from a slow site.

Whatever server setup you choose to go for, just always ensure the flexibility and scalability is there when you need it.

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Use A Separate Server For The Database.

It’s quite common for an eCommerce site to all run from one server. However, if your site activity is growing year on year and you are seeing a gradual decline in performance, then you might want to reconsider your current server setup.

The common mistake here is to give the current server more power but to let it continue to do the same type and amount of tasks. A much more effective way is to split your servers up so that each server performs a specific task. The server would be configured to deal with its task in a much more effective way than the one size fits all approach.

The most basic multi-server setup would be for all database-related tasks to go through one server and for all front-end related tasks (loading page styling, static images) to be performed by another. Server setup can be a lot more complex than this with use of Edge servers that load content for the user from a location closest to them. This means all customers, no matter where they are in the world will benefit from similar site loading times.

Other methods would be introducing Load Balancers which would distribute the demand from incoming traffic to multiple servers. This ensures no server reaches its capacity.

To summarise, everything we’ve covered here should go some way to showing you that these days, with the right server provider, you have a lot of options to ensure your site operates at peak performance. Server management needn’t be over-complicated or unaffordable, but if you have any further questions get in touch and we’ll be happy to help.