Surviving high-traffic events with Fastly

There are a lot of reasons your website might go down, but overloading your servers with requests during high-traffic events is one of the most common ones.

Big sales events might make your ecommerce site unresponsive and slow to load. If a blog post or video on your site goes viral, you might not be able cope with the ensuing onslaught of readers. Whatever the scenario may be, if your site isn’t prepared for a sudden increase in demand, you won’t be able to handle the resulting traffic spike. In turn, you’ll be delivering a poor experience to your users, which could end up costing you money in the long run.

You can prepare for some major events that happen every year (like Black Friday and Cyber Monday, or the week leading up to Christmas), but other events are completely unpredictable. A recent example from Overstock illustrates this perfectly: their website saw their traffic numbers triple due to consumers buying emergency preparedness supplies when the first cases of Ebola were reported in the US in the fall of 2014.

As you might know, a content delivery network (CDN) can help with these issues. A CDN not only shields your origin from spikes in traffic, but it also ensures speedy delivery of content. This helps you meet your users’ expectations when they visit your site, whether that’s reading the latest news on the royal baby or purchasing a coveted item during a flash sale.

To do this well, your CDN needs to have a few key qualities, including prioritizing site uptime and performance, the ability to make updates and serve content in real time, and up-to-the-second visibility into logs and performance analytics. Below, Fastly’s customers discuss how our CDN has helped them during high-traffic events. Read the full case studies from these customers.

Maintaining site uptime and performance

Traffic spikes could cause your website to crash at the worst possible time. Given that 79% of customers are less likely to return to a slow website, if your website doesn’t maintain uptime and perform well, you may drive away potential customers for good.

Surf contest website Body Glove Mavericks Invitational knows this all too well. During the seven-hour duration of their one-day Mavericks Invitational surf competition, they needed a way to successfully handle one million viewers. Tony Rose, consulting CTO for Mavericks at the time, explained that they were looking for a CDN with a quick and easy integration to enable cache purges and configuration changes at the edge. Since their contest can kick off at any time, they also needed a support team that could engage at a moment's notice.

They looked to Fastly for help, which included “monitoring the site, making [the team] aware of issues as they came up and either resolving them directly or working with to resolve them quickly,” said Rose. Mavericks’ origin was shielded from the increase in requests, and with Fastly’s support, the site maintained uptime and performance for the whole competition.

Another example is Crate, a distributable SQL database company which was a small startup still operating in half-stealth mode when one of their online campaigns hit #1 on Hacker News. The company was not at all prepared for the resulting traffic spike. Fortunately, they had already migrated to Fastly, and we were able to help them cope with the traffic.

“As our traffic increased, our website performance remained consistently strong, which we attribute to Fastly’s Wordpress Plugin,” described Jodok Batlogg on Crate’s blog.

Online payment company Stripe chose Fastly for a similar reason. They needed to move quickly on a customer demand around a global, highly publicized media event in December 2014. Due to the newsworthy nature of the event, Stripe had to be prepared for a sizable and immediate spike in demand, which is why they reached out to Fastly. They also needed help mitigating any distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks that might occur due to the sensitive nature of the content.

“Other solutions that we thought about proved unable to keep up with the spike in demand,” said Marc Hedlund, VP of Engineering at Stripe. “Once those were turned off and Fastly was receiving traffic, performance was great. What we did for the media event in December would not have been possible without Fastly. Their team allows us to respond to very high-demand events, which is a fairly common occurrence across our customer base. For us, the important thing is to be prepared for the event, no matter what.”

Serving content in real time

40% of users abandon a website if it takes longer than three seconds to load, so if your site isn’t performant, potential customers may move on. By using Fastly, you can cache a large portion of your content on edge servers that are geographically closest to your users, making sure your users can access your website and application as quickly as possible.

For instance, audio recognition app Shazam works with advertisers like Absolut and Jaguar to connect TV ads and related digital content through “Shazamable” campaigns that air during events with large audiences, like the Super Bowl. The creative content for these ads can change rapidly and requires multiple iterations, so the ability to make and deploy changes instantly is critical for success.

“Fastly absolutely helps the end user experience, and has a material impact on the performance of delivering results to our users,” said Charles Henrich, EVP of Engineering for Shazam. “We now serve the content much faster, because it’s much closer to our users.”

“Going viral” is another reason ecommerce stores might need to think about improving how they deliver content. Catch Digital, a full service digital agency, launched One Direction Fragrance, a responsive online store built on Drupal that showcases exclusive content for One Direction fans. When the store was promoted to One Direction’s 20 million Twitter followers and 34 million Facebook fans, the site experienced a 25x spike in traffic. With Fastly in front of the site, Catch Digital was able to maintain performance and serve content in real time.

“Internet users want to get content as quickly as possible, so it helps if the content is delivered from a server close to them,” said Leon Kessler, Head of Development at Catch Digital. “The One Direction Fragrances site gets traffic from different parts of the world, even though the band is UK based. Most of their traffic comes from the US, and having a CDN in front of the site has helped tremendously.”

Real-time logs and analytics

Fastly offers two features called Real-time Log Streaming and Real-time Analytics, which means you get full visibility into what’s going on with your content. With these features, our customers can detect performance-related issues before they affect user experience.

For instance, Stripe used Fastly’s Dashboard to monitor site performance during their popular media event in December 2014. Used in conjunction with their own monitoring systems, Stripe was able to identify and resolve issues as they occurred.

“The Fastly Dashboard gives us real-time visibility into what is actually going on,” said Andrew Metcalf, Engineering Manager at Stripe. “At one point during the event, it was immediately clear from our monitoring systems and Fastly that a particular subsystem of ours started to have problems. This made it easy for us to figure out what was going on in the stack and fix any issues as they were happening.”

Fastly’s Real-time Analytics and logging capabilities also enable Shazam to detect what changes need to be made for their “Shazamable” events, and serve the changed content to users in real time.

Are you meeting your customers’ expectations?

When someone accesses your website or app, they just want it to do what it’s supposed to do — and as quickly as possible. A customer shopping an online sale just wants to pay for their item and know that the transaction will go through without having to wait for pages to load. They don’t want their carts to time out, or to be told that while a page was loading, the item they wanted to buy just sold out. If someone wants to watch an event online, they want to be able to watch it stream in real time without delays or buffering.

Having a CDN that keeps your site performing well and serving content fast is a great way to meet ever-increasing customer expectations of speed. For example, when the royal baby George was born in 2013, the Guardian’s traffic spiked from an average of 400 requests per second to over 1,000 requests per second. Using Fastly, not only did their site continue to perform well, but their readers were able to read about the highly anticipated and newsworthy event. For Catch Digital, the fact that their site maintained uptime and performance meant they were able to satisfy the needs of thousands of One Direction fans — fans visiting the site were able to view and purchase the much-coveted fragrance.

One of our goals at Fastly is to help your site not only survive high-traffic events, but to ensure your customers get what they came for. For further reading, check out the full case studies from these customers.

Anna MacLachlan
Content Marketing Manager

7 min read

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Anna MacLachlan
Content Marketing Manager

Anna MacLachlan is Fastly’s Content Marketing Manager, where she talks to brands and partners to tell stories about scale, security, and performance. She received her MA in Comparative Literature from NYU and loves megafauna and mountains.

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