Preparation is the new Black (Friday): Advice from tech experts on preventing website crashes

On Thanksgiving weekend every year, millions of shoppers take to the internet to ‘online-shop’ for the best deals on products and services, from lipsticks to insurance policies. The high volume of web traffic on companies’ websites is a recipe for causing all manner of problems – take Amazon’s website crash on Prime Day last year as an example. Every year, these crashes and connection issues result in many unhappy customers unable to purchase their bargains, and many businesses missing out on potential profits.

With this in mind, multiple technology experts give their advice on how businesses can keep their cool during the sales event.

Keeping security watertight

Jan van Vliet, Vice President & General Manager EMEA at Digital Guardian looks into why it’s not just technology businesses need to prepare: “When preparing for the increase in sales, ensuring the right levels of security for Point of Sale and back end payment systems should be a primary focus. However, even with the best technology solutions in place, 90 per cent of corporate cloud breaches occur through social engineered attacks. It is just as important to have your staff as prepared as your technology.

“As a common form of these attacks, malicious parties will try to target administrators with spear-phishing attacks to gain control of accounts or endpoints. To mitigate this risk, retailers need to ensure regular training for employees so they can recognise a potential spear-phishing attack. Additionally, having the right controls in place to avoid common attacks used to gain access and control of an admin workstation will go a long way to warding off unwanted visitors.”

Steve Moore, Chief Security Strategist at Exabeam expands, stating: “Frequently during Black Friday and Cyber Monday, intrusions are detected by a notable change, such as a rapid increase in network traffic, a suspicious system login location or time, or the unusual export of sensitive information. Machine learning security approaches can make it fast and easy to find anomalous and suspicious user and device behaviour. Its algorithms can baseline normal behaviour in your network environment, then alert your security team whenever anomalous activity occurs.

“Prebuilt security incident timelines can display the full scope and context of related event details. This means that analysts don’t have to comb through massive amounts of raw logs to manually create a timeline as part of any investigation.

“As a result, analysts can detect breaches sooner and reduce the amount of time that attackers are ‘dwelling’ in a network environment, significantly reducing the size of a breach and its devastating impacts. With the increasing sophistication and worsening impacts of mega data breaches as the holiday season approaches, now is the time for organisations to implement smarter security management solutions.”

Bryan Becker, Product Manager at WhiteHat Security looks into the effect shopping apps are having on security risks: “Cybersecurity isn’t always at the top of everyone’s mind – and that means these apps can become ripe for hackers to pick off credit card and other personal information from unsuspecting shoppers.

“Before the shopping season truly gets underway, retailers and consumers should be taking proactive steps to safeguard both business and personal data throughout the holidays, and beyond. For retail businesses, that means incorporating security into the development process of their applications, to reduce the number of vulnerabilities in apps, but also to increase the remediation of vulnerabilities that have gone undetected.

“For their part, consumers must stay vigilant, and check that the apps and websites they use are encrypted. In addition, consumers can choose payment apps to purchase items. This eliminates the risk of their personal card information being insecurely stored on an unknown vendor’s system.”

Time for a storage revamp?

“Black Friday and Cyber Monday are the biggest days for retailers, yet most retailers still use the same technologies they employed a decade ago – Point-of-Sale systems, one or more servers, and some external storage,” Alan Conboy, Office of the CTO at Scale Computing points out. “Other more innovative retailers have digitised their infrastructures with in-store Wi-Fi, security appliances, or in-store digital promotions. Many retailers still collect, send and process data over networks and off-site data centres. The challenge is that if that off-site data centre experiences an outage or network failure, this will certainly lead to downtime, ultimately affecting shoppers’ experiences, whether in-store or online.

“Instead of only sending and storing data in a centre located hundreds of miles away that every store on the network relies on, retailers should consider the deployment of an IT solution at the edge. A hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) solution with edge computing capabilities brings a mini data centre directly to each store, while still utilising the larger, off-site data centre. It combines high-performance servers and storage into a single, simple to use, onsite data centre that isn’t reliant on external networks, so downtime is no longer an issue. This simple, efficient way to manage IT allows retailers to capitalise on the shopping rush.”

Chaos engineering

Being ready for chaos and the unexpected must be part of your agility planning. Jeff Keyes, Director of Product Marketing at Plutora comments, “Black Friday represents unpredictable load on the system combined with late-breaking changes to handle special processing on the deals. Online retailers have learned by sad experience that without proper planning, they’ll miss opportunities only realised during those critical hours.

“To prepare, all organisations should incorporate a little chaos into their software delivery pipelines to see how quickly they can react to last minute changes, unpredictable loads, and unexpected failures. Redundancy and resiliency planning in both infrastructure and processes dramatically improve the reliability, and help achieve a trustworthy customer computing experience. Invest in chaos engineering to verify your preparedness – the changes you make will impact how you architect and deliver software solutions.”

Analysing customers

Alex Simonson, Client Director at Mango Solutions explains how, “meticulous prior planning is essential to ensuring everyone gets the most out of these shopping events, and data analytics underpins that planning. Tracking historical data and doing predictive analytics will help determine projected customer behaviour and therefore help optimise stock levels and pricing accuracy to ensure maximum returns on the day. However, it is important to ask the right questions prior to carrying out the data science, as this will be the differentiator between success and failure on the big day.”

But spare a thought for…

“The HR team too!” says Liam Butler, Area Vice President at SumTotal. “The smart retailers know that employee scheduling is a science, not an art. They need to understand which employees will be available well in advance of the big day – and that’s where advance scheduling comes in to play. Analysis of employee data including skill-sets, location, availability, planned absence, number of staff required and so on will help to ensure the right number of people are in the right place at the right time. When a date on the retail calendar is as important as this, simply guessing at employee availability is not an option.”

Turn those black clouds white

Martin Taylor, Deputy CEO at Content Guru highlights how businesses should be prepared: “Cyber Monday and Black Friday are planned events, so the surge in demand and website traffic should be predictable enough that retailers can ensure a smooth and successful day for their business and for their customers. However, we know that this is not always the case. Sometimes, there are unexpected issues with one or more of the channels that customers are using to engage with those retailers. During periods of increased demand, this can be seriously damaging, both to revenue and customer loyalty.

“A website crashing on Cyber Monday is comparable to the power going out on Christmas Eve, and if a main channel of communication goes down, customers will displace to all other channels of communication to get an answer.

“In fact, the retail industry could learn a lot from organisations in the utility sector that are already utilising the latest in cloud customer engagement technology, such as Natural Language Processing (NLP) and advanced customer journey analytics, to ensure they can seamlessly service each customer correctly, first time round.

“The chances of experiencing such an issue are much higher if you are relying on legacy technology to host customer interactions. In the event of a technical hiccup, using a cloud-based engagement platform can be the difference between a retailer crashing out with reputational harm and profit loss, and one with happy customers at the end of a busy day.

“Retailers, much like energy providers, need to be able to scale up and down their resources and allocate them across each component of their omni-channel environment. Without the flexibility gained by utilising cloud customer engagement technology, the channels will be overwhelmed and only serve to exacerbate the original issue.”

To conclude, Jonathan Wright, Industry Director for Retail at Six Degrees advises: “Throughout the golden quarter and into 2020, retailers should be considering long-term strategies that utilise the right cloud-based technology platforms to enable them to adapt to changing consumer demands.

“The foundation for great customer experiences in the current omni-channel retail world is the efficient collection, analysis and utilisation of data. Cloud technology enables data to be held centrally, analysed and utilised to deliver insights. This increases visibility, enables effective management and – ultimately – increases revenue and secures the future of your retail business.

“By hosting systems on cloud infrastructures, your business can make data easily accessible to the right people whilst maintaining high levels of security that will increase consumer and regulator confidence: all essential ingredients to a successful Black Friday, Cyber Monday, 2020 and beyond.”

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