6 Lessons the ACLU.org Web Team Can Learn from Online Retailers
February 02, 2017

Tammy Everts
SOASTA

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If the events of this past weekend are anything to go by, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and similar organizations should take their cues from the retail industry.

I’m not talking about tactics when it comes to responding in court to the current administration's executive orders. I’m talking about how they manage online traffic.

Consider what happened this weekend after President Trump signed a controversial executive order. As a result of this action, the ACLU received more than $24 million in online donations – seven times the amount it receives in an entire year – from 356,306 people. Not surprisingly, this traffic spike caused the site to briefly go down.

Traffic surges can happen when you least expect them. Political events can have a huge impact on people’s online behavior, as the ACLU’s website outage clearly demonstrates. While the ACLU might reasonably have expected online donations to increase in light of recent events, they had no way of knowing they were about to experience the largest surge in donations in their 97-year history.

Online retailers know they need to ensure they’re “always open” in today's 24/7 on-demand world. Fortunately, thanks to modern load testing and performance monitoring technologies, site owners can load test at massive scale via the cloud to ensure their sites can handle immense traffic, along with unprecedented visibility into the real-time speed and availability of their sites.

Here are 7 tips that organizations like the ACLU can borrow from the retail world:

1. Remember that every site fails eventually

There’s no such thing as 100% uptime. When a site goes down, it isn’t because someone forgot to flip a switch. It’s because modern websites are complex mechanisms. Any complex system will fail eventually.

2. Accept that you can’t performance test for every contingency

Performance tests are a reliable way to guarantee that your site won’t go down — as long as it’s subjected to the same conditions defined within your test parameters. But you can’t test every single variation of every single parameter. When loads are different from what you modeled in your tests, you may have problems.

3. Know that the past is not a predictor of the future

Load patterns are unpredictable. Yes, you can and should take past load patterns into account when preparing your site, but this won’t cover you for every contingency. Just because you experienced certain load patterns for one event doesn’t mean that load pattern will be consistent for other events.

Over time — even very short periods of time — your site changes, your visitors change and your visitors’ behavior changes. There are no constants. Surprises happen.

4. See failure as an opportunity

Outages suck. There’s no sugarcoating that. But if you must experience one, then you should learn everything you can from it. Make it your mission to get to the root cause of the problem and develop new testing processes to prevent the issue from recurring.

5. Embrace continuous improvement

The web is a dynamic space, which means none of us ever get to stand back, dust off our hands and exclaim: “There! It’s finished!” Instead we build, we evolve, we fail (sometimes), we learn, we evolve some more, so on. We value small evolutionary steps—adding new tools and processes gradually — versus huge overnight changes. We recognize that rigorous performance testing and monitoring don’t guarantee 100% uptime, but they do allow us to fail faster and iterate sooner.

6. Be aware that page slowdowns can cause as much — or more — damage to your business as outages

Outages are stressful, but they’re not the worst performance issue that most sites face. If a site goes down, you’ll probably just try it again a few hours later. Most of us accept that these blips happen. But if a site is consistently slow, people could eventually stop visiting altogether.

Ultimately, the ACLU and similar organizations need to realize that the Trump administration will make the news cycle a perpetual “Cyber Monday." They will need to be prepared. Following the example of online retailers will help them be ready for their moment in the spotlight.

Tammy Everts is Director of Content and Editorial at SOASTA.

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