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IKEA website outage exposes IT dangers – but how can retailers prepare for unwanted downtime?

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At the time of writing, IKEA is still struggling with an outage of its UK site, which has led to customers reporting problems with features such as online ordering and its stock checker.

The retailer said that its IT team was addressing an issue with its central IT systems. The cause of the outage is not yet clear, but it is now stretching into its second week.

Lotta Svedeborn, Shop Online Manager at IKEA UK & Ireland, said: “Over the course of the weekend, we have experienced some internal technical difficulties which have impacted some of our planning tools and intermittently affected the ability to shop on our website in the UK.

“Our technical experts are working around the clock to resolve this. We sincerely apologise for any inconvenience this may have caused our customers and we expect it to be up and running again very soon.”

However, the retailer made use of its Twitter team to respond to consumer complaints and check stock availability for them. It also used it to advise some customers to visit stores to purchase goods if they were unable to buy them online.

The problems show the continuing unreliability of IT systems at a time when so much commerce is conducted online.

Richard Grove, IT manager at specialist gift retailer Find Me A Gift, highlights the potential of cloud computing to help retailers solve the problems of resource availability.

“Retailers who suffer from seasonal or other peak selling periods it can be very difficult to have sufficient resources available to ensure that all visitors can access your site quickly, without interruption.”

Grove says that the cloud allows website operators to have spare servers sitting idle and ready to be enabled as required, although he cautions that this may not always be possible depending on a retailer’s specific infrastructure.

The retailer has recently moved to a hybrid cloud solution, which provides “a level of flexibility in being able to increase resources on demand but not having to pay anything when we are not using them.”

Grove also emphasises the importance of load testing, including simulating an ever-increasing level of demand on the site.

“Nothing is better than putting the stress on your site or servers and seeing how they react to properly understand how all the elements of your business interact as each part will react differently to pressure, with some handling it with no problems and others not so well.”

He says that this provides an opportunity to identify the areas that cause bottlenecks and then put plans in place to mitigate these areas, which could include disabling certain features during peak periods or scheduling maintenance and optimisation for quiet periods.

A blog by CA Technologies earlier this year suggested synthetic monitoring solutions could provide a way to run regular checks on site performance in order to identify both big and small issues.

Meanwhile, Stuart Toller, director at digital agency DAM Digital, says that having a plan in place to deal with outages is more important than trying to prevent them.

“If your website is down then your customers are going to immediately switch to other channels so make sure you have enough people covering social media, phone and email and make sure they have the tools and information they need.”

He says that this would require planning how to take orders and payment via these channels, as well as finding ways to add these orders back into web systems when they come back online.

Toller adds that a plan should include how a retailer can “go that extra mile to delight customers who are frustrated” by the site’s failure.

He also says that improvements in hardware, infrastructure, software and processes all need to be reviewed regularly.

“Having regular backups are useless if they can’t be restored and this is much more common than you’d think.”

Image credit: IKEA

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