Is Your Website Ever Slow, Unstable or Unavailable? - December 09 Newsletter

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Although online performance has always been crucial to the success of a transactional website, this is now more critical than ever with growing customer expectations of an interactive, personalised, dynamic and responsive experience in an increasingly crowded and competitive marketplace.

Online performance means not only the speed at which your website’s pages are served to the customer and become available to interact with, it also means robustness in terms of stability and availability during the full customer experience across single and multiple sessions.

The following points highlight best practices in online performance and stability, along with some of the most common ways to improve performance, to help you ensure that your website performs quickly and consistently, time and time again:

Performance Best Practices
1. Consider Performance a Top Priority
All too often, web application performance and stability is either an afterthought or not even a thought at all, and yet the consequences are often severe, if not catastrophic.

Whatever the stage in your application’s lifecycle, be this early planning and design of a new development project or two years of live operations, it is never too late to make performance concerns top priority, adapting your approach, investment and processes to ensure they are considered at every step.   Adopting a ‘performance by design’ approach across all areas, be they functional, application or infrastructure, ensures high performance and stability for your customers.

2. Performance is Everybody’s Concern
Online performance is too often seen as the concern of the application development team.  Infrastructure blames the application for poor performance, application development blame the infrastructure for being too slow.
In reality, performance concerns, testing, tuning and planning should include a number of areas across the business working together to ensure optimal performance and stability.  If Marketing plan a mass email promotional campaign for example, Application Development, Infrastructure and Live Operations should all be heavily involved.

3. Constantly Test and Optimise your Application’s Performance
More often than not, after performance testing and tuning is carried out as part of an application delivery project, no further testing or tuning takes place during the lifetime of the application.  Numerous minor and major application releases can go by, sometimes involving significant application architecture of infrastructure changes, with little or no regard for the performance impact of these.

By building performance and stability assurance gates into your development, testing and release processes, the chances of live failure are significantly reduced.  By performing a process of continuous performance tuning and optimisation, this stops your competitors from moving one step ahead.

4. Carry Out Realistic Performance Testing
The effectiveness of Performance Testing is largely based on the underlying test model.  Performance Testing should aim to simulate a realistic blend of user journeys through the web application, against live sized infrastructure using live like test data and volumes.

Although it is never possible to completely simulate live customer load, the more comprehensive and ‘live like’ the performance testing, the greater the chance of identifying performance issues and bottlenecks prior to go live.

Improving Online Performance

1. Optimise the use of Caching, Compression and Session State
Caching is one of the most common and effective ways to increase a web application’s performance and can be implemented across many different layers of the application, ranging from browser caching and web page/partial web page caching to search caching and database query caching.

The use of web content compression is often overlooked when deploying a web application to live, but can have significant performance benefits due to reductions in bandwidth that can be achieved.  This benefit must be weighed against the encoding and decoding overhead required however, and therefore is not suitable for all situations, mainly where dynamic content is served.

Finally, a rationalisation of application session state can have a significant impact on application performance and stability, potentially leading to reduced server load and faster response times.  Many applications use session state by default, which can place an additional processing overhead where it is not required.

2. Architect for Scale Out, Not Up
Although it can be a significant architectural change in many existing online applications, the ability to scale your application tier out, rather than up, can be key to increasing the performance of your web application, whilst also allowing for future visitor growth.  If your web application is stateless then a load balancer can be configured to spread the load across a flexible number of servers.  Where session state is required, central shared session stores can be utilised or in memory session with stickiness maintained by a load balancer.

Whilst scaling out at application tiers is the most common approach, this can often lead to the database becoming the performance bottleneck.  Depending on the database product being utilised, databases can be clustered or the data model / architecture re-designed to spread data transactions across multiple instances.

3. Review and Optimise Database Read and Write Transactions
Many common dynamic web application performance problems relate to the way the application tier queries and writes to the database, perhaps the most common being the reading of an entire query dataset into memory before iterating through it - rather than using a forward only reader pattern.  Although suitable to some situations, this approach can lead to significant page load performance problems and places significant demand on server resources.  Similarly, another common problem is seeing entire datasets read into and updated in memory before being posted back to the database where only a single value change is required.

4. Optimise Server Round Trips and Bandwidth
Reducing the number of server round trips can have a significant impact on individual customer performance along with the overall performance of an online web application.  The optimisation of server side processing versus client side processing can lead to reduced load placed on the web application and database along with reduced bandwidth.  Other improvements include the use of server transfers rather than client side HTTP re-directs and the removal of data passed to the client in order to maintain state in cases where this is unnecessary (e.g. ASP.NET ViewState).

5. Offload Static Content to a CDN Where Possible
Websites are increasingly using Content Delivery Networks provided by a growing range of providers, which provide a way to serve website content from infrastructure external to your core application.

Mainly used for serving static content such as images, media files, documents etc, CDNs not only allow you to reduce the load and bandwidth placed your core application infrastructure, but they also provide a way to deliver content globally from a network of global data centres.

6. Embrace the Cloud
The growth of cloud computing over recent years cannot be ignored and it is fast becoming a serious alternative to traditional application infrastructure hosting.  Cloud services can take away the headaches and associated costs of scaling out your infrastructure in terms of servers, network equipment, bandwidth and global positioning.
Common uses of cloud technologies range from hosting your entire web application infrastructure in the cloud in multiple global data centres, to utilising virtual cloud servers to scale out your web application tier as and when required.
If you want your website to always be fast, stable and available then we recommend that you speak to the team at
Intechnica. They provide performance engineering for the Internet.

Article submitted by: Will Montague
Intechnica – Performance Engineering For The Internet 0161 212 1570


Generating More Profit From Compelling Catalogues - November 09 Newsletter

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For many years we have been helping retail clients to either introduce or improve their sales-enabled catalogues. Experience has shown us that profit performance from a catalogue can vary wildly depending how well it is executed and supported. A compelling catalogue, fulfilled efficiently and supported with effective marketing and customer service will generate significant extra profits for most retailers. We have also found that the Internet does not remove the benefits of having catalogues. Catalogues, with their convenient ‘coffee-table’ browser-friendly nature, provide customers with many advantages that a website cannot.

How does a catalogue generate that extra profit? By increasing sales at acceptable cost. There is no other way!
For the multi-channel retailer a sales-enabled catalogue can increase sales through all channels. The catalogue itself can generate telephone sales directly, but also it can generate additional sales via the website and in stores, using effective cross-channel promotion. The catalogue will remain visible around the customer's house or workplace for a good while and keep bringing the retail brand back to the front of mind – this is something a website cannot do.

There are 4 key elements required to ensure a catalogue is relevant and compelling:
Cross-Channel Consistency
The catalogue must be complementary to the website and the stores. The customer must be able to move between the channels seamlessly. Multi-channel but single-brand!
Credible Product Ranging
The catalogue need not contain the retailer’s full range of products but the customer must understand easily what’s in the catalogue, what’s not and , importantly, why.
Attractive Service Proposition
The service supporting the catalogue can easily put customers off. In particular delivery, return and refund propositions are critical – make sure that the quality, time and price elements of these services are in line with customer expectations. Cheapest is not always best. Customers are smart enough to pay for exceptional service. Your competitors may be cheaper...but are they reliable?
Profit-Focussed Catalogue Design
The main aim of the catalogue is to sell lots of high profit products. There are many design elements that either enhance or detract from this goal – front cover, back cover, section/page layout, product placement, photography, product copy and promotional copy, amongst others. What might appear subtle changes can make significant performance improvements.

The means of addressing these 4 elements effectively is by following a well-defined catalogue creation process that typically covers the following stages:
1. Catalogue Strategy
To agree the high level multi-channel context, product and service offers, marketing approach, target customers, product ranging parameters, promotional mechanics, number of pages, page dimensions, paper quality, concept design and target costs [before any range and product selections or page production starts].
2. Category Strategy and Page Allocation
To agree the product category approaches, commercial objectives and section and page allocations with the Commercial, Merchandising and Marketing teams.
3. Creative Brief Sign Off
To agree the concept creative treatments [including any new concepts], page formats, catalogue copy style and section and page templates for the catalogue plus any creatives required for all marketing and web activity. It is important that requirements for catalogue covers, inserts and section breaks are agreed at this stage so that outline designs can be completed before product selections are started.
4. Creative Concepts Design
To design creatives, templates and design treatments based on the given briefs.
5. Flat-Plan and Layout Design
To create and agree the running order and double page spread layouts by category for the whole catalogue. To ensure that the catalogue and category strategies will be delivered on the pages. It is also important to agree photography requirements by section [number of shots, image styles, lifestyle shots, packaging shots, composite shots, room settings……]. Finally, this is the stage at which the design and page make up requirements should be agreed by section, including the detail of any new treatments.
6. Catalogue Product Selection
To agree product selections for the categories - including how these will fit into the agreed sectional page allocations. Also, this is the time to brief detailed photography requirements by product and to brief the catalogue production team with the detailed design and page make up requirements by product. This step has usually been preceded by a number of pre-selections to narrow down the options for the product range.
7. Photography Sample Collection
To obtain product samples for creating product images that follow the concepts and specifications provided during earlier stages of the process.
8. Copy Sign Off
To write and agree appropriate catalogue copy for every product. It is important that the copy generated contains sufficient detail to sell the product and adheres closely to the house and catalogue copy style.
9. Covers and Inserts Sign Off
These are extremely important selling pages in the catalogue. It’s imperative to obtain senior management level sign off as early as is practicable for these key catalogue elements.
10. Final Pricing Sign Off
This stage is usually preceded by an earlier, initial pricing activity. This final sign off should be a single activity [not a drip, drip activity] for the whole catalogue and, ideally, as late as is practicable in the process. It must of course be accompanied by appropriate checks to ensure accuracy on page.
11. Final Catalogue Pages Sign Off
To achieve final sign off for all catalogue page designs with agreement to proceed to print. This activity should be timed to be as late as is practicable in the process and as close as possible to the date at which the commitment to print is made.
If the catalogue is to be on time, on cost and of the required quality then the stages above need to take place within a well constructed and well managed production plan.

The old adage is definitely true for catalogue creation – ‘If you fail to plan, then you plan to fail’.
A compelling sales-enabled catalogue can make your business more profit!