Sites that Cannot Fail—Forecasting the Big Storm

April 16, 2015
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Sometimes we can’t plan for it. Sometimes we have a moment’s notice. Other times it’s our most anticipated day of the year. No matter the situation, every organization has experienced a time when their digital properties could not fail—or the business impact would be devastating.

In this blog series, we’re showcasing what it meant for three of our largest customers to have a site that could not fail. We’ll highlight both business and technical preparation, continuous improvements, platform insights, and the importance of always listening to those providing feedback on the experience.

The Story

The Weather Channel website weather.com, one of the top 40 most trafficked sites in the US, provides millions of people every day with the world's best weather forecasts, content, and data. On average, it serves 100 million unique visitors per month. But when major weather events loom, like a hurricane or nor’easter, the site will serve up to a billion requests a week.

These requests include delivering hundreds of dynamic maps and streaming video to users in over three million forecast locations. The site has to remain stable with instantaneous page loads and 100 percent uptime, despite these bad weather traffic bumps of up to 300 percent.

The Weather Channel legacy platform was groaning under this pressure. It was using approximately 144 servers across three data centers to deliver more than 17,000 articles updated on a minute-by-minute basis.
So in November 2014, weather.com moved its entire website, which serves more than 20 million pages of content, to Drupal and the Acquia Platform, facilitated by the experts at Acquia partner MediaCurrent.

Within weeks, one of the nastiest winters on record began moving into the Midwest and Northeastern part of the US. Prodigious web traffic followed.

The new site, now the busiest Drupal site in the world, never buckled. In fact, it thrived, delivering faster, more efficiently cached pages to customers.

“weather.com is thinking ahead to a future where up-to-the-minute weather information requires an open delivery platform that adapts to fast changes in technology,” Tom Erickson, CEO, Acquia, said at the time. “The Weather Channel is leading the transformation of how we interact with weather news; people expect accurate weather forecasts on-demand, and they want to be alerted to events that may impact their life, work, travel, and leisure. weather.com is gaining the agility to deliver on customers’ increasing expectations. It’s leading the charge with contextual weather insight that anticipates every user’s needs.”

A recent global survey of more than 500 businesses for the Reducing Customer Struggle report found that companies are losing nearly a quarter of their annual online revenue due to a bad website experience. That’s billions of dollars lost and customers who won’t come back because of a digital experience that left a bad impression.

Whether you’re a weather site watching traffic rise with the barometric pressure, an enterprise facing transformation in an industry where digital transformation is lacking, or a smaller brand on the cusp of breaking into a new market, your digital presence can’t fail.

Dave Terry, co-founder and partner of client services at Mediacurrent, said, “Acquia opens up all kinds of opportunities for weather.com. The site relies heavily on the ability to quickly create and distribute massive amounts of content, and with Drupal, weather.com gains editorial agility and the ability to innovate and bring the latest applications and features to the user experience.”

Behind the Scenes

When it comes to capacity planning, some organizations plan for a worst-case scenario. They purchase larger-than-necessary capacity to be permanently available. But this is wasted money. Conversely, some organizations under-plan for traffic. Without the means to increase capacity on demand, they suffer outages and, ultimately, loss of revenue.

With Acquia Cloud, the guesswork is eliminated. You only pay for what you need. Acquia Cloud scales with burstable and elastic resources, which can be added quickly and easily on demand. Our operations team can scale up resources for any period of time, and then return resources back to normal levels when traffic subsides.

We know that scaling is complex, so we do the work for you. We add resources in real time to address changing traffic conditions seamlessly when a site needs it most. Scaling on Acquia Cloud does not require risky architectural changes like migrations and resizing. But we do scale the ecosystem, not just the hardware. We scale across all layers of the environment––web servers, file systems, databases, and load balancers. The architecture scales across the MySQL database layer using data replication and the file system layer utilizing GlusterFS to ensure syncing. The web server layer is scaled up by running active web servers in multiple availability zones. We run dedicated Memcached servers for sites with high workloads and multiple load balancers to ensure traffic is distributed. This level of Drupal-aware customization doesn't exist outside of Acquia.

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As part of the scaling enablement strategy, it is important for customers to have a site insulation strategy so that visitors are not aware of traffic increases. Acquia uses Varnish caching in front of all traffic to speed up sites. Additional features such as geolocation, mobile redirection, and CDN implementation can be enabled. Acquia has over 25 personnel across our Professional Services, Technical Account Management, and Support organizations who specialize in performance, focusing load testing, database query rewriting, stack tracing, and more.

At Acquia, our passion is customer success. Because of that, your site doesn’t become the next headline. Your best day doesn’t become your worst; your biggest events are uneventful behind the scenes. In essence, we don’t sleep, so you can. Our team of experts is on hand 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year so that you don’t fail. You get a true partnership with Acquia.

No matter the time of day, or the size of the traffic spike, we have your back. So instead of downtime, your traffic spikes yield growth and success.

photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

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