On the heels of Flipkart's second outage due to a spike in traffic, IT leaders from Snapdeal, Myntra talk about the challenges of preparing e-commerce platforms for surges in traffic.

E-commerce sites thrive on delivering a user-centric shopping experience. So when they start experiencing service outages they leave their users disgruntled. This is exactly what happened to Flipkart's website earlier this week, when the Xiaomi Mi 3 phone was launched amid much hype. The incident highlights how critical it is for e-commerce portals to have a contingency plan to effectively manage massive surges in traffic.

Amitabh Misra, VP-Engineering, Snapdeal, believes that technology robustness of a portal can shield it from such outages. "We have never faced a situation where our site has gone down because of a spike in traffic. Last year, we sold Canvas A116 HD devices on our portal. Within an hour of its launch, the entire stock was sold. Even the significant spike in traffic could not bring down our site," he claims.

Misra suggests that as a preventive measure, e-commerce companies should conduct proper checks of their platform, stress it out, and architect systems that need to be scaled. That's pretty much what Flipkart did.

Such outages are not the result of well-marketed product launches alone. They are also a function of seasonal effects. During the festive and holiday season, e-commerce traffic shoots up. Online retailers should prepare for such occasions.

"We are architected in a way that we can scale any system in a matter of few hours. Auto scaling can also enable you to scale the platform as the traffic spikes," says Misra.  

Myntra, recently acquired by Flipkart to strengthen its online fashion portfolio, has employed measures to avoid such incidents. In a bid to beef up its infrastructure capability, online retailer Myntra.com has equipped itself with cloud servers that enable it to scale up servers on demand. "It allows us to add more servers when there is a spike in traffic," says Shamik Sharma, chief technology and product officer at Myntra Designs.

However, Sharma says that it is very hard to predict how much traffic a site will get, and what the pattern of a spike will look like.

"Even Google's Gmail goes down every once in a while, impacting millions of users," says Sharma. "Facebook has also suffered outages in the recent past. Such brief interruptions of service are a result of the traffic spike and this is nothing specific to Flipkart."   

As a precautionary measure, Myntra is adopting more rigorous methods for stress-testing our platform. "I am sure Flipkart is doing the same. However, all said and done, predicting traffic is based on guesstimates. And there is no fool-proof mechanism to accurately estimate traffic," he says.

Misra says estimations can go wrong. "We should be as scientific as possible about estimating our numbers. Also, once you have estimated your numbers, be as conservative as possible. If your estimates say there will be traffic for 100 then build for 200. You can do this for the short-term and then scale back," he says.