To say that digital transformation is essential to the retail industry and holiday retail sales is to state the obvious. Whether you’re a pure-play e-commerce operation or executing on an omni-channel retail strategy, the richness and responsiveness of digital experience is an existential matter. One of the lessons of the $691.9 billion 2017 holiday season is that the impact of digital experience on retail is growing around the world. According to Akamai’s State of Online Retail report, Black Friday and Cyber Monday made a material difference in the U.K., Germany, France and Spain in 2017—with the U.K. experiencing a 42 percent increase in online conversion rates on Black Friday of 2017 when compared to 2016. As the 2018 Christmas and holiday shopping season approaches, it’s critical to not only enrich digital experience and optimize code for responsiveness, but to gain the visibility needed to counter the risks of increasing third-party and external dependencies.

Delivering a Superior Digital Experience

Building retail sales on digital customer experiences depends increasingly on third parties. The 2018 Retail Systems Research report sponsored by Yottaa found that in the race to increase the richness of user experience, e-commerce sites increased use of third parties by 50% year over year.

“the average number of third-party requests was 139, representing a 50% growth over last year. In terms of actual third-party technologies implemented, most of the sites tested had between 30-40”

One result noted by the study was that e-commerce website performance got a lot worse, which points out the need for app developers to test for and optimize the performance of third-party functionality.

However, operations teams at online retailers also need to pay attention to this rapid growth in third-party functionality because it hammers home the point that delivering a superior digital experience requires tending to all the external dependencies that impact both user experience and third-party performance. There are multiple dependencies that every single front-end shopping experience and every back-end online shopping technology rely on that have nothing to do with your application code and everything to do with managing an external ecosystem.

External Dependencies

1. DNS. DNS issues can cause a loss of availability or slow responsiveness for your site or third-party technology providers. What can go wrong? Most common is the slow resolution of URLs. Less common but always a threat are security issues such as DNS record hijacking and cache poisoning that can redirect traffic away from the legitimate IP address of your site or the API endpoint URL. DDoS attacks like the one suffered by Dyn in 2016 can make authoritative servers unavailable to answer DNS requests from resolvers. DNS problems are complicated by the fact that your site and your third-party providers may rely on different DNS providers.

2. BGP routing. If the Internet can’t route traffic to your site or to your third-party providers, you’ll suffer an outage to anywhere from a portion to the entirety of your e-commerce site or digital service delivery platform. BGP configuration errors happen constantly on the Internet because Internet routing is based on an unverified chain of trust between the thousands of ISPs around the world. In addition, BGP hijacks such as the attack on Amazon’s Route 53 service can maliciously redirect traffic away from your or your third-party providers.

3. ISP connectivity. Third-party providers are hosting their services all around the Internet, which means that your digital experience relies on anywhere from dozens to potentially hundreds of ISPs. An outage in one of your upstream ISPs or even the middle of the Internet may disrupt critical communications.

4. Data centers and public cloud providers. If you’ve been in business for a while, you may have origin servers in a private data center. That said, it’s likely at least part of your code base is likely hosted in origin servers that live in public cloud providers like AWS, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud Platform (GCP). Reachability, paths, and performance to and from public cloud regions and availability zones differs between providers and geographies. A slowdown or outage can cut your application code off from critical third-party functionality. For example, in May 2018 a connectivity issue caused workloads in the AWS US-East-2 region to lose touch with third parties such as Braintree payments (for processing credit cards), Salesforce.com, and Rackspace hosting as well as CDNs like Akamai.

5. CDNs and DDoS security providers. Speaking of CDNs, providers like Akamai, Fastly, AWS CloudFront, and Cloudflare are essential to delivering digital experience effectively on a global basis. Many CDNs also offer DDoS mitigation services. What can go wrong? One issue that can arise is that users may not be connecting to the most optimal CDN edge server. Another aspect may be poor or disrupted communication from edge servers to your origin servers wherever they’re hosted. When under DDoS attack, the DDoS mitigation service may prevent your site from being unavailable, but if the user experience you’re delivering still suffers when being defended, the damage to online sales and your brand reputation will still be significant.

Network Visibility is Critical

Since you don’t control all these underlying dependencies for your users and for each of your third-party providers, network visibility is critical. Unfortunately, traditional network visibility was only designed to handle the network infrastructure that you own and operate. Modern network visibility extends into networks, infrastructure and services that are well outside your enterprise’s four walls. That visibility needs to include app and service availability and responsiveness, DNS performance, BGP routing behavior, end-to-end connectivity including the Internet, and how CDN and DDoS mitigation providers are performing. Otherwise, you’ll be helpless on an operational basis to manage the severe continuity risks inherent in your ever-increasing external digital experience dependencies. You’ll be wasting a ton of costly staff time trying to figure things out while your customer loyalty drains away.

With 30% or more of retail revenues dependent on the holiday sales and with digital experience the lynch-pin of modern retail, the right kind of network visibility is key to both the top and bottom line of retail holiday success. To learn more about addressing these risks with Network Intelligence, read our eBook on Delivering Superior E-Commerce Experiences.

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