How to stop embarrassing enterprise website downtime
Bandwidth Management

How to stop embarrassing enterprise website downtime

Imagine visiting your favourite shop during normal opening hours, only to find all the lights out, nobody inside and a sheet of paper taped to the door saying, “Closed unexpectedly due to too much custom. Please come back later, though we're not sure when.”

If you were a particularly loyal customer you might go away and come back later. More likely you'd take your business elsewhere, especially if the problem kept occurring. Why waste your time on an unreliable organisation that clearly doesn't value your custom enough to keep its doors open?

This is the choice facing visitors to your enterprise website when it becomes unreliable or unavailable. The chances are that this is happening more often than you realise, because there are so many potential points of failure. That's because a modern corporate website depends, at minimum, on the following:

  • Reliable internet connections between clients and the web server
  • Dependable hosting with high percentage server uptime
  • Timely renewal of security certificates and other credentials
  • Sane use of development servers for thorough testing, with total separation from live servers
  • Sufficient CPU and data bandwidth to handle spikes in popularity and demand
  • A web admin team that understands the business need for website stability and continuity
  • Content providers (either within the company or as consultants) who supply content appropriate to the structure of the site
  • Fast, good quality web code accessible on a wide range of mobile and desktop browsers
  • Timely updates to the server software and any web applications running on top of it, to prevent malware and bug-related exploits
  • Web designers who can balance presentation against server footprint, i.e. an understanding that bandwidth-heavy designs have performance penalties when scaled up to tens of thousands of users.
  • Database servers capable of scaling to handle high numbers of requests
  • Testers/QAs who know what to look for and what to do when they find it

Reading that list, which isn't even comprehensive, makes one wonder how any websites stay up as reliably as they do. Yet when sites do become unavailable, more often than not it's the human part of the equation that's at fault.

There's no technical reason for any enterprise site to become unavailable, yet that still happens today. For example, 'bandwidth exceeded' messages are disappointingly common. Website facelifts that break mobile browsers now occur so frequently that they're barely worth mentioning. Usually they're rolled back within a couple of days, once the enraged customer feedback reaches the right ears. A couple of weeks later, a much-scaled-back facelift will be launched, with far less fanfare. This time it might work, or at least break fewer devices.

Agile development is partly at fault here, but the main issue is the difficulty of balancing so many disparate requirements.

It can be tempting to throw the whole problem at someone else, by outsourcing website maintenance and hosting to a third party. But nobody cares about your brand as much as you do. Outsourcing may reduce the chances of things going wrong, but it also increases the communications barriers to be overcome in order to correct problems when they occur. It's easy to talk to your web team if they're in the same building, but much harder if they're not even in the same town – or the same country. Trying to explain an error to someone miles away who turns out not to have the necessary technical knowledge to understand it, let alone resolve it, can be a frustrating experience.

Moving web hosting to the cloud can have some benefits, particularly when it comes to automatically scaling web servers and database servers to handle increased traffic. AWS and Azure are unlikely to run out of bandwidth, after all. However, that stability depends on ordering the right package and enabling all the correct switches and options to permit auto-scaling with sensible pricing caps. There's still a balance to be struck and it must be regularly reviewed. This is not a fire-and-forget solution.

In any event, the cloud isn't a panacea. It shifts the problem but doesn't eliminate it. Without proper technical oversight, cloud services can even make some problems worse, often at the edges, where you're probably not looking.

So what's the answer? Since people are part of the problem, they're also part of the solution. The fundamental requirement is better communication between your content team – often but not always the marketing department – and the technical people who keep your website live. These people need to not only talk to each other, but actually understand each other's requirements and business priorities.

Too often in large organisations there's an 'us and them' division, especially between technical teams and customer-focused departments such as marketing. It's born of the different mindsets and different psychological traits that help make people good at one job or another. You can't – and shouldn't – try to change, suppress or alter those traits. However, bringing these teams together more often, and giving them the chance to explain their perspectives and priorities to each other, can increase mutual understanding.

There is almost certainly some anger and antagonism within your organisation between the people who keep your website live and the people who supply its content. Both of them are rowing hard, but not necessarily in the same direction. It doesn't have to be this way. Facilitating better communication between these teams will do more than help keep your website live and fully functioning. It might also make your organisation a nicer place in which to work.

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Alex Cruickshank

Alex Cruickshank has been writing about technology and business since 1994. He has lived in various far-flung places around the world and is now based in Berlin.  

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