The Target website outage of 2011 has “gone viral” throughout the industry. We wanted to provide some perspective for future merchants looking to re-launch.
At the end of the day, the Target outage is something that many online merchants struggle with and was unfortunately made worse by the timing of the re-launch of their website on a new technology platform. Although it is very difficult to avoid what happened, ultimately there are a few important considerations for merchants changing platforms that I'd like to share.
1. Licensed vs. Cloud. When making a decision to take the platform technology and delivery in-house (ie. going with a licensed software and hosting it), a merchant is now accountable for uptime, performance, capacity, and security of the systems. That means the merchant needs to maintain human resources, hardware, hosting, and security audits. Most “true Cloud”, or Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) platforms provide the delivery technology along with the ecommerce software itself in order to specifically provide the optimal "quality of service" experienced by the merchant with their software. In addition to the "tech stuff", many mid-market and enterprise SaaS eCommerce Platform Providers offer aggressive Service Level Agreements (SLA) that hold them accountable for these key performance indicators. "SLAs with teeth" (as they're often referred) will incent providers to keep the site performing in top condition.
2. When re-launching a website, large or small, it is important to understand that there is going to be a laundry list of small things that need to be address after the site goes live. Since it is impossible to fully replicate "real world traffic" (no matter how much money you throw at the project as with Target I'm sure the budget was significant for this project), and as a result it is impossible to fully understand what the real load on the system will be. So let this be a lesson to other merchants to use simple tactics to avoid crushing the website and annoying shoppers on the first day.
Tactic 1: Soft Launch -delay the national advertising campaign by a week or two so you can see how the system is performing.
Tactic 2: Phase the Launch -start with core functionality than phase in new categories, products, and features as you understand how the system is performing.
Tactic 3: Monitor and React Quickly -build dashboards that allow top products and pages to quickly alert the merchant’s IT team of load issues.
In summary, it is impossible to avoid bumps and bruises when re-launching an eCommerce website. As someone who re-launches 8-12 websites per year, I can say that these projects are significantly complex and the team is often under immense pressure from management and often given unrealistic timelines. However, merchants of all shapes and sizes should understand the critical difference between "owning and operating" ecommerce software vs. the new age of "cloud/SaaS" eCommerce platform providers. And finally, by taking simple steps during a re-launch a merchant can reduce the risk of an outage and keep shoppers spending money on their website.