Customers need to shop anytime and from any device these days. If your e-commerce website goes down your competitors could profit from your troubles.

The whole point in having an e-commerce site is to offer customers the ability to access your products and services even when your physical store is closed. So the cost of downtime is devastating to any e-commerce business. This is starkly illustrated by Abby Hardoon in her article ‘The Cost of Downtime’ for New Media Age, which was published on 12th October 2011. She says: “For the biggest web retailers such as Amazon, who reportedly had a turnover of just over $34 billion in 2010, if we make an assumption that traffic is uniform over a 24 hour period, just 1 hour of downtime equates to $3.88 million in potential lost revenue alone.”

can open source software really guarantee 100pc uptime

Downtime can be caused by a number of issues. For example, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) suffered from a spike in demand on 18 August 2011. This caused its website to crash and mayhem for the students and their parents who wanted to secure their chosen place at university. With university fees rising to £9,000 per year in 2012, A Level students rushed to the site to make their applications. Graham Jarvis, writing for CloudPro magazine, reported in October 2011 that this led to 644 visits a second at its peak. This kind of chaos can both damage an organisation’s reputation and customers’ perception of its brand.

Is 100% uptime possible?

Mark Reynolds, Director of Technology at LinuxIT, says that the ability to achieve 100% e-commerce website uptime involves far more than the underlying Open Source operating system of the servers hosting it. That’s because it’s important to consider a range of other factors like data centre availability, network resilience, network capacity, whether there is any form of reliance on third party services and the Service Level Agreements (SLAs) that are in place. It’s nevertheless important to realise that 100% uptime is not considered to be possible by most industry analysts, and that’s why it’s crucial to plan ahead to minimise the issues that can be caused by downtime.

Yet he advises that Open Source operating systems and software provide stable foundations that have been proven in the UNIX world. These have been adopted by other Open Source projects like Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP (LAMP). They are effective because they have evolved with the development of the internet. So they are ideally suited to create the building blocks for a highly available e-commerce platform and environment.

What do customers expect?

Bryan Foss, a visiting professor at Bristol Business School and an independent commercial and public sector board level advisor, says that customers expect to use systems that carry out relatively simple and repetitive operations or which don’t change much – online transactions for instance. He agrees that Open Source systems can support a high level of uptime: “Open systems are able to produce very high levels of availability when fail-safe services are in place; such as duplicated storage, elastic server capacity and so on.”

With this in mind, Reynolds comments that the key cause of downtime, as in the case of UCAS where there was insufficient planning for an increase in demand for access to its website, is human error. Therefore any e-commerce website needs to be thoroughly tested in isolated environments before being rolled out into the public sphere. Foss also counsels that organisations need to ensure that they have the right development team expertise, like that of LinuxIT, to help them to produce quality applications and services. It’s also important to utilise tools that can identify system failures as quickly as possible in order to cut the cost of any downtime that might ensue.

Why is LAMP such a robust solutions platform?

One good Open Source solution is LAMP. “The individual LAMP components have been proven to be mature and stable and they have evolved to meet the needs of their e-commerce users rather than as web functionality that’s bolted on as afterthought”, says Reynolds. Netcraft estimates that 60-70% of e-commerce companies are using LAMP as part of their web infrastructure and built separately from the internal IT. This is probably because they hire external expertise to gain access to the kind of specialist knowledge and experience that is offered by LinuxIT.

What else do I need to think about?

Before you can adopt the technology there will be some legwork. Reynolds says you will need to do the following:

  • Encourage and adopt open standards
  • Understand the capabilities of Linux and OSS and re-address existing problems and solutions. Out of the box Linux OS provides many features that simply aren’t possible with alternatives.
  • Start with small tactical solutions or pilots to learn lessons before systems become critical
  • Only deploy in situations with a good fit, e.g. Linux OS currently doesn’t make a very good Active Directory server
  • Carefully consider your motivations, business needs, ideology, costs saving and features that you just can’t match with other solutions

The robustness of Open Source software and operating systems is why so many famous web companies – such as Facebook, Google and Yahoo – use LAMP software stack. There is no accrual of software licensing costs and it makes it possible to scale up to create growing IT infrastructures. This enables an e-commerce organisation to create additional services as time goes by, allowing it to adapt to customer and market demand. “The solution is truly scalable to meet the needs of the business”, concludes Reynolds. So Open Source e-commerce software and operating systems are a no-brainer for any business.

For more ideas on implementing Open Source operating systems, please read our eGuide How to ensure Open Source software ensures real world ROI.