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Akamai has been proudly partnering with Best Buy on eCommerce holiday preparations for years.  While we work with many eCommerce IT organizations, Best Buy is notably one of the best - they are forward thinking and innovative, technically savvy about performance and scalability, operationally excellent with extensive monitoring, and have an excellent partnership with their business team.  


In today's blog, I sat down with Andrew Tsai, the Akamai Engagement Manager for Best Buy, to talk about what makes the Best Buy and Akamai relationship so successful, and why Best Buy has an industry-leading holiday readiness model to emulate.  Here's a photo of Andrew - we managed to catch him in one of the rare moments he's not eating a Chipotle burrito (or two).


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[Lelah] I know you love working with the Best Buy team.  How is Best Buy more sophisticated, in your estimation, than other retailers you've worked with?


[Andrew] They understand the benefits of availability, performance, and supportability and how working with Akamai helps accomplish those goals.  When their business team wants bigger events, richer and more dynamic content say around holiday, RewardZone, or a Super Bowl commercial, it's executed with scale in mind.

  

We are part of the extensive collaboration that exists between their marketing and IT teams.  As potential solutions are discussed, compromises are made if needed.  In addition to scale, we do things in a way that we can support and track, so we can react quickly and apply lessons learned to the next event.  Another differentiator is we have an enterprise type relationship with them and they have developed their own internal processes to deal with priorities and chargebacks as we work with many groups within Best Buy.  


Finally, their operations team is excellent and among the best in class we've seen. They have extensive monitoring both at their origin and at Akamai.  Both sides receive each other's alerts, so there is a huge collaboration between us so that either side can respond or escalate an issue quickly.  Internally, they have great monitoring to keep third parties in check, trace individual user sessions, and have a very good understanding of their daily traffic patterns.  They live in our Luna Control Portal, look at traffic and usage reports constantly, and have been known to recommend a few portal enhancements or two.  In fact, before we even notified them, they once identified an Akamai caching change was almost complete because they saw their hits to origin dramatically decrease in real time.  


From my perspective, the Best Buy team understands Akamai and the ROI of leveraging the Akamai platform.  They always ask Akamai first.  It's the difference between being a strategic partner and a vendor.  


[Lelah] When does Best Buy begin holiday readiness planning?  And what are their objectives for the season?


[Andrew] In all seriousness, it begins as early as Q1.  Early in the year, we meet to recap the previous year, brainstorm ideas even crazy ones, and plan out the roadmap for the upcoming year.  Obviously things come up, but it really helps us plan out the year so we have an idea of their initiatives, understand each other's team structure, and determine how Akamai's products and solutions fit in to their initiatives or not.  The real heads down work starts roughly in August and they have a dedicated holiday readiness team who is responsible to make sure we are ready.  


Revenue goals are of course primary, but they really look at offload and performance from an operations perspective.


[Lelah] In the architecture planning, how do you work with them to evaluate their architecture and their key risks?


Best Buy architects with Akamai in mind.  We have weekly calls and we have quarterly reviews on site.  If appropriate, we have access to internal sites and applications and share documentation whenever possible.  We're not afraid to bounce ideas or innovate something new and often engage in quick proof of concepts so we can design with best practices and offload in mind.  They are very smart with lots of cool ideas about how to use the Akamai platform.  In fact, they were one of the integral customers that pioneered Akamai's SPA [Shopper Prioritization Application] product.  Our account team loves it as we have a chance to architect and think outside the box.  


[Lelah] Can you give me an example of how they use Akamai to scale?


[Andrew] Probably the best examples are their holiday initiatives for which we are key part.  For their home page and doorbuster sales, they came up with static pages and used NetStorage to ensure that traffic was 100% offloaded to Akamai. Each of these pages was also designed with all types of devices in mind - desktop, tablet, iPhone/smart phones, and basic devices as well - and each of these device-specific pages is stored in NetStorage.  We handled the mobile device detection and vanity redirects to the device-specific pages at the Akamai Edge.  Time match logic was built in to automatically flip the logic during holiday peak times and revert it back after Cyber Monday.  We also ran through all the purge scenarios in case of emergency changes.  For pages we couldn't cache, we used ESI fragments and tweaked the automated purge schedule to minimize origin bandwidth.  Key PDP pages and SKUs were also analyzed and architected in a way using GTM to go to different origins to achieve maximum offload. 


This was the home page delivered from origin at 11:59 PM, right before the holiday sale kicked in:


Best Buy 1a.png


At midnight on Thanksgiving, the Akamai configuration logic kicked in to serve this page automatically from NetStorage:


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This happened for the mobile device pages too:


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The result is 100% offload at peak!


Best Buy 4a.png


[Lelah] Wow - that's impressive.  Are there any other cool solutions that we've partnered with Best Buy on this holiday?


We've been working on a cutting-edge project for the last year that allows them to be very dynamic and scale on-demand with their traffic, be more agile with releases and maximize offload for their browse functionality.  Unfortunately I can't share the details as its confidential to Best Buy, but Akamai has implemented some pretty sophisticated routing, caching, and failover logic that are critical to the project.    


Recently, we've implemented a Download Manager for online games and their digital library that allows customers to optimize large software downloads purchased directly from bestbuy.com.


They also make great use of SPA [Shopper Prioritization Application] whether it's for planned maintenance or unforeseen events.  They're smart enough to know that having a contingency plan is important, and they make sure the experience is as user friendly as possible.


[Lelah] In a previous blog post I talked with Paul about the criticality of load testing. How does Best Buy load test for the holidays?


[Andrew] It's part of their holiday readiness team and initiative that they have every year.  Best Buy has been running load tests every few weeks since August.  With Premium Support, our team is fully aligned to Best Buy and we are very much engaged to help them work through issues whether it's log analysis or pinpointing where certain bottlenecks may be.  


[Lelah] This past Thanksgiving weekend, how was the Akamai team involved in monitoring? 


[Andrew] In preparation, we put together extensive documentation on our internal wiki for our aligned Premium Support team so collaboratively we were well aware of their holiday projects and key URLs.  We looked at past traffic peaks and since we were part of their holiday planning, we knew roughly when the traffic was going to hit us.  We had our usual Akamai and origin alerts set up, but tuned for holiday to eliminate false positives.  Bi-daily touch points were also a good way of keeping the Akamai and Best Buy teams in sync as we constantly monitored error rates and offload.  Overall, things went smoothly and we were able to squeeze in some turkey/family/ football time, and I think that's a direct result of our close collaboration and proactive planning throughout the year.


[Lelah] I'm not surprised to hear things went so well.  Thanks for sharing all of this great info on Best Buy's holiday preparations.  You guys are definitely working on some cool projects.  I now owe you a burrito (or two).


Is Cyber Monday in the UK a Big Deal?

Monday marked Cyber Monday in the UK; a day projected to be the largest online shopping day pre-Christmas, and second only to Boxing Day in all of 2012.  Visa projected up to 6.8 million transactions on retail sites yesterday, spending up to 465 million GBP.  That figure puts online sales up 21 per cent on the equivalent day last year.  Experian projected the UK will make 115 million visits to online retailers, 36% more than last year's "Cyber Monday" which saw 84.6 million visits.  The final data on growth has not yet been released, but early reports from retailers such as Marks and Spencer suggest that Cyber Monday delivered on the expectations. 


Akamai works with dozens of retailers in the UK, and hundreds globally, and tracks the traffic, in page views per minute, across all retail sites in our Retail Net Usage Index.  To look at the potential surge in traffic this Cyber Monday, we broke out UK traffic coming on all retail sites globally.  Our data suggests that while Cyber Monday was a strong day, perhaps there is more hype in the size of the day than reality.  In fact there are a handful of other retailers, like Sebastian James of Dixons, that are also skeptical of Cyber Monday's allure: "I don't think Cyber Monday has the same power it may have had. It dates back to a time when you had to wait two weeks for a delivery, but now we do 24 hour delivery and will offer reserve and collect up until Christmas Eve."


The chart below looks at the daily peaks and averages of UK retail traffic from the start of November through to Cyber Monday.  While there is a marginal trend of growth in the Sunday and Monday peaks each week (shoppers typically research purchases on Sundays and buy on Mondays), the peak on Cyber Monday is only 6.5% higher than November 11th, during the mid-season sales.  The averages have shifted slightly upwards as well, but outside of the mid-season sales, the trend notably begins on the US Black Friday, rather than Cyber Monday. Does this data suggest that UK shoppers are shopping earlier, and more globally?  If so, there may be an opportunity for UK retailers to capture more of the local shopper's pounds if sales were to begin earlier in November.


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Looking at the traffic changes under different lenses lends some additional interesting insights into shopping behavior:


  1. Saturday Belongs to the High Street: Saturdays drive the lowest amount of traffic, repeatedly, week after week.  This is an indicator that shoppers are enjoying the experience of shopping on the high street on the weekends, rather than online retail sites. 
  2. Sunday Research Day: Shoppers first come online in numbers on Sunday night.  This is largely research-driven traffic as shoppers investigate the deals they are most interested in preparation for Cyber Monday.  This is true not just during Cyber Monday weekend, but most weeks of the year.UK Blog 2a.png
  3. Cyber Monday Peaks in the Evening:  On Cyber Monday, shoppers first start to come on in numbers at 7:00 AM, over their morning coffee, and continue coming online in numbers throughout the early workday, peaking at the lunch hour.  In the afternoon, they get back to work, and then head back online again after dinner, ultimately peaking to its highest point at 8:00 PM.

UK Blog 3a.png

We'll wrap up with the highlights on the all the growth reports as they come in.  We'd also like to hear your stories.  How did your site fare this Cyber Monday?  Did your site see new peaks, similar to Marks and Spencer?

Now that Cyber Monday has passed, we've left the most daunting of the 2012 traffic peaks behind us.  US retailers were largely stable and available this year, with few catastrophic site failures.  In general, retailers are much more mature with their readiness planning, starting earlier, and conducting load tests and simulations right before peak.  


For those of you tracking our Net Retail Traffic Index this past weekend, you may have noticed an odd spike of 11.5 million page views on the Sunday before Thanksgiving.   A few savvy observers asked the very logical question - what's that spike?  The biggest online retailers all engaged in "best case" load testing this past weekend.  


Load testing is our number one recommendation for being prepared - you have to know your vulnerabilities.  While this may seem obvious to many of you, it is surprising to hear the number of retailers who still attempt to squeak by without load testing before the holidays or peak events.


Load Testing 1a.png


An Interview with Akamai's Load Testing Expert


Who better to speak with about Load Testing then Akamai's Load Testing expert, Paul Korenevsky.  Fortunately Paul spoke with me last week, before he spent the entire weekend sleepless, onsite with his customer, watching the traffic and orders fly in.  This is Paul (looking a lot more awake than he is this week).


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[Lelah] Paul thanks for talking with me today as I know it's a particularly crazy time of year.  Can you share what you do for Akamai?

[Paul] My primary responsibility is an Engagement Manager, which makes me the owner of the professional services team for our premium clients.  My secondary responsibility is a SME [subject matter expert] for load testing best practices.  We have defined such practices for load testing providers SOASTA and Keynote, and I am working to optimize those practices and expand the list of providers.


[Lelah] When a retailer runs load test, what are their primary goals?

[Paul] There are two goals.  First they are trying to identify potential bottlenecks early.  They will stress tests their obvious bottlenecks to understand how they will perform under load during their holiday peaks, and to tune where possible.  Secondly they want to evaluate the performance degradation under load.  The reality is that most retailers historically only got through to #1 but more and more they are starting to get to #2.


[Lelah] Which load testing providers does Akamai most commonly work with?  How are they optimized to work with the Akamai cloud?

Most of the larger ecommerce companies offload not just static content but application processing onto Akamai. If they load test direct to origin, without Akamai, the traffic will not represent the load under real conditions.


Akamai initially didn't allow our customers to conduct load testing on our platform, without express consent of the Akamai Performance team, because of potential adverse impact to their end users, or to other customers.  Before we formalized the load testing framework with SOASTA and Keynote, the load tests would require a good amount of preparation and each test would be subject to approval by the performance team.  We ensure load testing providers are not firing all traffic from one or a limited number of locations to represent accurate traffic patterns from a wide variety of geographies.  This ensure "real to life" caching and offload metrics, and performance measurement with Akamai's ability to route around internet latency.


SOASTA more recently has become prevalent in many of our larger retail customers.  Last year we worked closely with them to make sure we trained their team and vice versa.  They even made changes to their platform to ensure they could work well with us.  The Akamai Performance team then signed off on a framework that is "pre-approved" for working with SOASTA and Akamai.  The framework ensures full visibility with monitoring and reports on the Akamai side.  


[Lelah] The click stream that is tested is essential for a valid load test.  How do retailers identify the clickstreams through their site?  How many are tested and how often?

[Paul] Retailers typically leverage analytics tools to identify common paths.  They also identify high-risk problem areas based on data from previous performance monitoring tests.  For example, features of checkout or checking out directly from a wish list.  They then take these common and high-risk paths and then schedule them for load tests.  


Pre-holiday they do testing with each release in lower environments.  They start production testing in August and do it regularly up until holiday.  Those who do it regularly and properly end up conducting between 8 and 20 tests. 

The intention is to not take down the site.  Scheduling the tests during consistently low traffic times is least likely to impact their end users.  They include the real user traffic numbers in their load testing generator targets.


[Lelah] How do retailers set those load testing targets?

[Paul] Usually they take Thanksgiving night, Black Friday morning or Cyber Monday best case projections from the business.  This year retailers were testing with the expectation of 40 - 60% traffic growth at peak. If they can exceed forecasted load then they stay up for the holidays. The hard part is sustaining traffic without performance degradation.  The page performance targets under load are driven by their business team.  They have alerts that fire if performance drops below a certain level.


[Lelah] What are the most common vulnerabilities found through load testing?

Normally its database and application server issues. We'll then work with them to see if we can provide offload for those vulnerable areas on Akamai. It also helps them determine how well their load-balancing infrastructure is working.  We'll double check that their disaster recovery center (or other failover scenario) is operating appropriately.  Often times a SPA [Shopper Prioritization Application - Akamai's traffic throttling solution] test is paired with a load test to evaluate when SPA should be used and how they can maintain optimal load and performance in their environment.


Retailers considering load tests through Akamai should make sure to contact their account rep to see if their load tests comfort with the pre-approved framework.

Cyber Monday Breaks New Traffic Records

Before we call it a night after a long but exciting day watching the Retail Net Usage Index, I owe you the final details.  Cyber Monday traffic first began to climb early this morning, at 6:00 AM ET, and steadily grew to an early record peak at 11:00 AM.  Traffic held steady at these levels until about 2:00 PM - a much stronger midday than in previous years.  Then shoppers turned away to get some work done before the day's end, headed home from work, and then eventually started coming back online at 7:00 PM.  We then peaked after dinner tonight just before 9:00 PM, with another record-breaking 8,516,582 million page views per minute.  Traffic levels will slowly climb down through the remainder of the evening.


While we expect Cyber Monday to drive the most revenue based on the 3 previous years weekend tallies, what wasn't expected was that this 8.5 mm+ peak would be the highest retail traffic peak in history - 13% higher than Thanksgiving - or that it would drive more volume throughout the day - 16% higher than Black Friday.


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Given that Cyber Monday is the online day - higher revenues, higher conversions, and now higher traffic too - it is set to be a record breaking Cyber Monday in sales as well, likely exceeding initial projections of 20% revenue growth.  All indicators are strong.  Elyssa reported on the high purchasing activity today - forecasting 25% higher than Black Friday.  IBM also reported early results midday showing a 24.1% jump in sales over last year.  


Now that the peaks have passed, and retail sites can expect to hum along for the rest of the season, the fun begins. Tomorrow we'll wrap up the traffic highlights of the holiday weekend and more shopping behavior insights from our ADS Data Platform. Stay with this blog as we move through to the last free shipping day of the year.  We'll continue to report on traffic trends, but we will also share insider information and best practices from the online retailers who were successful this holiday weekend.  


We'd love to hear your story from this weekend.  Email me at lmanz@akamai.com, tweet @lelahm, or add your comments to this blog post below.


Cyber Monday Set to Be Biggest Test Yet

While Cyber Monday typically drives the most revenue during the holiday weekend, in 2011 it fell short in driving either the most traffic, or the highest traffic peaks. Thanksgiving and Black Friday took those honors.  This is somewhat expected; Black Friday and Thanksgiving are historically marketed as offline shopping days and therefore traffic on those days is in some part an indicator of offline purchase research.  However Cyber Monday is an online only day and therefore conversions tend to be much higher.


As of 11:00AM ET, Cyber Monday is surging ahead in both peak traffic and volume.  We're already peaking higher than at any other point this holiday weekend at 7,758,804 page views per minute.


In the chart below, you can see the hourly trends for Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and Cyber Monday traffic.  Black Friday has an atypical traffic pattern, peaking midday, versus Thanksgiving and Cyber Monday (and every other day for that matter) which tend to peak around 9:00 PM.  This morning we're trending high like Black Friday - our highest volume day - and still have a late peak to come tonight - like Thanksgiving.   I've marked out the projections based on previous years hourly growth trends for every hour past 11:00 AM.


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If we're expecting our highest traffic peaks and volumes yet, with higher conversion rates, then it's time to buckle our seatbelts.  In my last blog post, I talked about higher conversion rates creating more strain on ecommerce site architecture (see 2nd paragraph of post).  One thing is clear this morning, retail sites still have their biggest test - and opportunities - ahead.



Huge Traffic Volumes on Black Friday

It was a strong Black Friday online by all accounts.  IBM is reporting that sales on the day grew nearly 20% over last year. Black Friday also drove huge volumes of traffic, averaging over 6.3 million page views from 10AM Eastern through to the end of the night.   As expected, peak traffic levels hit at approximately 11am ET, but there was no lull in the high volumes of traffic until the midnight hour.  In the graph below we can see this is comparable to the traffic patterns from years prior.  (A reminder that we cannot compare overall volumes year over year in this graph, as Akamai is tracking a much larger set of retailers and sites this year than in years past).  


Black Friday Peaks 1a.png


Black Friday Drives 25% More Traffic than Thanksgiving

So far the 2011 trend is holding true for the 2012 holiday shopping weekend - Thanksgiving drives the biggest peaks, Black Friday drives the most volume.   The difference in volume between Thanksgiving and Black Friday is well illustrated in the graph below.  With similar peaks, Black Friday's average traffic levels are 25% higher.


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Mobile Continues its Break-out Year

Mobile purchases are also up with over 24% of visits coming from a mobile device, and mobile sales exceeding 16%. Anecdotally many retailers also reported mobile traffic peaks around 9 and 10:00 PM Eastern.

Retail Site Availability and Conversions - An Operations Point of View

The peaks are of course a concern to retailers, but it's also the nature of those peaks that matter as well.  If most of that activity is browsing, then it's usually easier (particularly for Akamai customers doing Dynamic Page Caching of Homepage, Category, and Product Detail pages with Dynamic Site Accelerator Premier) on application server and database processing, the most vulnerable tiers of a site.  If conversions are higher, then it can put additional strain on the site - and the shopping cart in particular - even with lower traffic volumes.  And in fact in our ADS Data Platform, purchase rates were 47% higher on Black Friday than Thanksgiving. 

This explains why our Shopper Prioritization Application, a traffic throttling solution, was in use more yesterday than Thanksgiving by Akamai customers. 

(Elyssa Duboys will be posting more interesting insights on shopping behavior from the ADS Data Platform on Monday.)

A Look Ahead to Cyber Monday

Last year Cyber Monday was behind Thanksgiving for peak traffic, and behind Black Friday for overall volumes, but drove the highest conversion rates (see Akamai's Holiday Conversion Index from 2011).    While surprising given that Cyber Monday is meant to be the online shopping day, I imagine it will hold true again this year.  With mobile devices accounting for over 25% of traffic and visits, traffic on Black Friday is evidence of the digitally assisted offline sale.  Shoppers are in the stores and using their phones.  With the growth of mobile, Black Friday will continue to become a bigger and bigger day on the online retail holiday season calendar.


Lelah Manz is Chief Strategist, Retail & Commerce, at Akamai.


Strong Start to Black Friday

In years past, Black Friday is the only day to reach its peak early in the day, with all other days peaking at 9 or 10:00 PM in the evening.  Last year on Black Friday we reached peak by 11:00 AM ET, and in 2010 we hit peak by 1:00 PM ET.  As I mentioned in the previous post, Black Friday may drive higher volumes all day but its peak was less than Thanksgiving night in 2011.  


Black Friday tends to drive much higher peaks earlier in the day because of research activity for offline shopping in the morning hours.  The overall volume on Black Friday has been higher the last year - despite the newly emerged Thanksgiving peaks - as traffic rates stay relatively high all day long.  This is largely in part to mobile devices giving consumers access to content while out shopping during the day.


Black Friday 1a.png



If this typical Black Friday pattern holds true this year, we are going through peak now at 7,099,644 page views per minute (at the time of this writing at 11:00 AM).  This is just shy of the Thanksgiving peak from yesterday at 7,411,734 page views per minute.  


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Will the traffic patterns remain the same this year?   I'll report back at the end of the day with the final Black Friday stats.


Happy Shopping!

Another Hockey Stick Thanksgiving

Last year Thanksgiving Day was our biggest traffic growth day, growing 70% over the year prior, and driving our highest peak traffic of the Holiday weekend - beating out even CyberMonday - at 9:00 PM Eastern.  


With the early doorbusters once again causing controversy, we all expected another breakout year for shopping on Thanksgiving Day.   By all accounts, Thanksgiving was a blow out traffic day.   With an early peak of 4,910,674 page views per minute at noon eastern, the day finished up with a peak of 7,411,734 PV/Min at 10:00 PM, much higher than the early day projections of ~6.2 million page views per minute.  


Internet Retailer has a great article summarizing all the trends from the day, including IBM's projections that Thanksgiving sales rose 17.4% over last year.  IBM is also reporting that 25.3% of the traffic came from smartphones and tablets and mobile devices accounted for 18.3% of sales.  An unbelievable statistic.


In the chart below - looking at peaks and averages over the month of November - the hockey stick marks Thanksgiving at 10:00 PM ET.  That traffic spike is nearly 2x normal traffic levels at the beginning of November!  Note that the averages are also starting to really pick up, indicating that the days are driving much more consistent volume versus sales-driven traffic spikes.


Thanksgiving Traffic 1a.png



Thanksgiving is also starting to follow a fairly predictable traffic pattern with early peaks at Noon Eastern, and evening peaks at 10:00 PM Eastern.  The graph below shows a fairly predictable growth trend throughout the day.  Shoppers come online in the morning from 7:00 AM through 9:00 AM, for early morning doorbusters then come online again in numbers at 7:00 PM to start their research for that evenings online and offline sales, finally peaking at 10:00 PM.  (Note that you cannot compare traffic volumes year over year as we are tracking a much larger set of customers and customer sites this year than in years past).


Thanksgiving Traffic 2a.png


Does this graph look like your Thanksgiving traffic?  Did you also see traffic levels at more than 2.5 x normal levels?  


On this very calm Thanksgiving Eve, it's a perfect time to share with you all a "behind the scenes" look at how Akamai's commerce experts are engaging with retailers in preparation for this weekend.   As Akamai is working with 96 of the IR100, we have broad visibility into holiday readiness preparations and what retailers are really expecting this season.  To get a sense of what's to come this weekend, who better to talk with than Jim Stathopoulos, who manages the Akamai's Commerce Services Engaged team.  This is Jim (and it is likely the only time you will see him in a suit):

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[Lelah] Can you tell us what you do at Akamai, and give us some insight into your team?

[Jim] I am the manager of the professional services teams for Commerce Premium accounts in North America. While my team covers Retail in addition to Travel and Hospitality, we work specifically with 23 retailers and brands that have asked for a higher level of engagement with Akamai.  My team includes Engagement Managers and Project Managers who are highly consultative and work as part of an Integrated Account Team at Akamai throughout the year with these customers. They are closely aligned with Account Executives in the sales organization, Technical Support Engineers in Customer Care, and Solution Architects.  As it's a fully aligned and engaged team, it's a much more of partnership versus vendor relationship.

[Lelah] Holiday readiness doesn't happen overnight.  When does your team start engaging with retailers on holiday readiness with Retailers?  

[Jim] It starts early in Q1.  We give recommendations on holiday readiness initiatives as part of our quarterly reviews in Q1, and ensure that we are planning for resources throughout the year on both sides.  The actual technical work beings in June and July with an extreme ramp up period in September and October, ending in a lock down in early November.  It's typically a 3 - 6 month cycle.

It's not easy to identify a specific "holiday" these days.  In the US, Holiday is now, and then shipping days end around 15th or 18th of December.   In Canada it is Boxing Day.  In Europe the January sales.  For office suppliers it is back to school and for B to B, the new fiscal year.   

[Lelah] So what is your team specifically working on with Retailers?  What are the goals and the most important activities?

[Jim] We have four key architecture goals - performance, offload, security, and visibility.  To create plans around each of these goals we have to start with an understanding of the marketing events.  What are the biggest marketing events?  What are the key clickstreams?  Will visitors be coming from mobile emails to the desktop?  Are they entering through doorbuster microsites?  What are the year over year traffic patterns and traffic projections?

For offload and performance, we can then create a holiday caching strategy that targets these events and patterns.  Every retailer we work with has a specialized, more aggressive caching strategy than their normal day to day operations.  The goal is to let Akamai's platform serve as much of their content as possible - microsites, homepages, product pages, mobile pages, redirects, etc.  We also need to understand their security concerns.  Then we work with them to load test, identify bottlenecks, and see what else we can do.

The operations of the day are very important too.  We always recommend they plan for the unplanned.  We can do all the planning and coding and testing but it's impossible to have everything entirely known.  Especially these last two years with attack traffic.  So we dig into failover strategies, disaster recovery environments, our traffic throttling application called Shopper Prioritization.  Then we'll run simulations - what happens if your database goes down?  Or your whole site?  We'll practice using SPA [Shopper Prioritization Application] to throttle end users in a worst case scenario.  

We also want to make sure we're fully partnered not just with the customer but with their other vendors and partners as well.  If you're on a conference bridge at 2am then its good to know who everyone is and what their roles and responsibilities are.

[Lelah] What Akamai products are most commonly leveraged for Holiday?

[Jim] We tend to be the team that thinks solutions rather than products but most of the capabilities we are leveraging for caching and performance are provided by DSA [Dynamic Site Accelerator] and Mobile Accelerator, or AQUA Ion for those that have our newest platform launched last month.  SPA [Shopper Prioritization Application] is one of the most critical applications our customers use.  It's an application run on Akamai only when you need it with a "waiting room" page that ensures you keep your customers engaged if something unexpected happens, while throttling end users on the back end.  They are all also using the KONA Security Solutions to handle attack traffic. For B to B sites and store applications it's TERRA Alta. And of course, Services and Support.

[Lelah] I know we haven't forgotten the attacks from CyberMonday 2010, and the exponential increase in attacks on retailers since then.  Has the increase in attack traffic changed how you engage for Holiday Readiness?

[Jim] Honestly we had to go back to school. These attacks started two years ago and took most of us by surprise.  We had to go out and become the experts.  It really rejuvenated the team as it was a new challenge.  We are now a Security company and my team has invested a huge amount of time in not just having the best security products but having the best security experts as well.   This won't be the first time something emerges out of nowhere, and my team is smart enough to take that head on too.

[Lelah] Mobile didn't exactly come out of nowhere, but has definitely emerged exponentially over the last two years as well.  How has that changed holiday readiness?

[Jim] Most importantly we want to apply everything that's happening on .com for mobile.  There needs to be a mobile caching strategy, as well as load testing and performance testing of mobile sites.  If they share the same backend then they have the same point of failure, so they need to be tested concurrently.

[Lelah] I know you're the guy who knows everything.  And while I'm sure you're not going to tell me who is going to go down, I bet you know that too.  Based on what you can share, what do you expect this weekend?  Will most of your customers stay up?  
 
[Jim] I have been doing holiday readiness at Akamai for 3 years and this is the easiest holiday season so far because of maturity of our customers and our solutions, and the depth of our relationships.   That being said, a few customers have transitioned to new platforms for either .com or mobile that are less mature and tested, and there is always the attack risk. So like any year, there will be an unknown component.

[Lelah] What should a retailer do if they are experiencing issues this weekend?  What if they are not a current customer?

[Jim] If it's during Thanksgiving football, call my boss not me.  Or even better, call your sales rep.  If you are not an Akamai customer don't worry about it, our sales rep will find you if you are having issues.

[Lelah] Now, seriously.  What should they do?

[Jim] We do focus on escalations and each customer has pre-defined holiday escalation paths.  Common across all of them is to contact customer care immediately and our Holiday Tiger team processes will kick in.  If you are not a customer then you can go to www.akamai.com for a live chat to put you in contact with the right person, or call 1.877.425.2624. 
 

Let the Holiday Shopping Season Begin

And so it begins! In the US, we can now expect the Holiday carols to beam through every store audio system and the early bird holiday sales to begin in full force. Akamai's Commerce team has been hard at work these last 9 months, side by side with many of our global Commerce customers preparing for another online holiday shopping season. As we inch closer to various online holiday shopping-related deadlines I'm excited to watch the results of all of our collective efforts to provide the best possible customer experiences.
 
This past weekend the traffic really started to pick up in the US, with 13% higher traffic at peak than the first weekend of November.  Our estimation is that Hurricane Sandy had a short but noticeable impact on retailers, and on the start of the holiday shopping season in particular.

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Despite this initial delay, this holiday shopping season is full of positive projections across all channels.  Anecdotally many of you have shared with me that you're expecting another blockbuster year. More generally, retail sales in the US are expected to grow overall by 4% (NRF), online sales projections continue in the double digits at 17% (Forrester), and sales via mobile devices are forecasted to double (eMarketer). Digital touch points continue to influence offline purchases at a growing rate, driving even higher online traffic growth.

Last year on this blog I shared US online traffic patterns across online, mobile, and social from Thanksgiving through to the last pre-Christmas shipping day of the year.  This year I'm expanding the data we're sharing by starting our tracking earlier, when the US shopping really starts (today), and following all the way through to the post-Christmas sales in Europe during the first two weeks of January. 
 
I hope you'll find it insightful to compare your site's traffic to the aggregate of 1000s of retail sites in the US and Europe.  Here are the stats you can expect to find:

 
In addition to the data, I'll also be sharing insight into Akamai's Holiday Tiger team, Akamai's products and solutions available to solve scale and performance problems, and stories and anecdotes from Akamai customer base, and industry news.
 
Any other data you'd like for me to cover?  Let me know by commenting below.  
 
I would love to have you join me and share your own stories and data comparisons on this blog.  Subscribe to this blog feed, or follow #AkamaiHoliday, @lelahm (me) and @Akamai on Twitter to stay in touch.
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