December 2, 2004, 12:00 AM

Staying on top of holiday traffic spikes

Mother’s Day rules at the 1800Flowers.com flower and gift site, but at its company`s other brand sites, Q4 traffic quadruples that of the rest of the year. To get ready, the sites go into lockdown for load testing as early as October.

When traffic peaks on retail web sites, so do the revenue implications of any site performance glitches. That’s why the brand sites of 1800Flowers.com--including Plow and Hearth, Magic Cabin Dolls, The Popcorn Factory, GreatFood.com and Hearthsong--go into lockdown in October, a few weeks before anticipated traffic spikes. That means no changes to the site or its mission-critical systems happen while site performance is load-tested.

While Mother’s Day rules at the company’s flagship flower and gift site, pulling in 10 times the traffic it averages the rest of the year, the fourth quarter is the busiest time for its other brand sites, where traffic is up by an average ratio of four to one.

Pre-Christmas, the sites use a performance monitoring suite from Mercury Interactive to simulate the four-to-one volume increase and gauge the impact on site performance, says Enzo Micali, 1800Flowers.com CTO. While the company has done pre-holiday load testing and ongoing performance monitoring for the past several years, it still finds some surprises in terms of performance as the sites’ features, functionality and supporting systems change from year to year, Micali says.

Last year, for example, a pop-up promotion on one of the brand sites, triggered when visitors followed a defined path on the site, worked fine in tests and after it went live. But pre-holiday load testing revealed at high volume it degraded site performance, so the promotion as originally configured was pulled prior to the holiday spike.

Failure to load test in this way has potential financial implications, points out Micali. “If you are going to get a four-to-one performance increase and you are not prepared for it, the site it too slow, people abandon and all of that translates into dollars,” he says.

To stay on top of such potential issues, systems currently in place at 1800Flowers.com are equipped to compare current order volume with last year’s order volume within 10-minute increments, a capacity it can dial up to a minute-by-minute analysis if there appears to be a problem. An alerting system, part of the Mercury suite, monitors performance at the sites, simulating traffic from points across the country and also checking application performance. “If response time surpasses a predefined threshold, alerts go out to everyone on my infrastructure team,” Micali says.

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