How To Balance eCommerce Scalability & Performance

Striking the perfect balance between eCommerce scalability and performance is the key to ensuring your online store can handle more traffic and transactions without sacrificing speed and efficiency. Today, we're diving deep into these crucial business components, exploring what scalability and performance mean, why you need both, and how to achieve the right combination for your business on your chosen eCommerce platform

How Are Performance and Scalability Different?

Performance and scalability are two terms often thrown around in eCommerce discussions, and they have more to them that meets the eye. To help you understand what they mean a bit more, let’s define what they mean within the context of your business.

What Is eCommerce Performance?

For many, performance is all about the user experience. Google’s Core Web Vitals (CWV) play a pivotal role in determining how your website ranks in terms of performance. According to Google’s own research, users are 24% less likely to leave a page if the site has overall Good Core Web Vitals.

Generally, Google’s Core Web Vitals measure loading speed, interactivity, and visual stability. According to Google’s own summary, the specific measurements are:

  • LCP (Largest Contentful Paint): The amount of time to render the largest content element visible in the viewport, from when the user requests the URL.
  • FID (First Input Delay): The time from when a user first interacts with your page (when they clicked a link, tapped on a button, and so on) to the time when the browser responds to that interaction.
    • In March 2024, FID will be replaced by INP (Interaction to Next Paint): A metric that assesses a page's overall responsiveness to user interactions by observing the time that it takes for the page to respond to all click, tap, and keyboard interactions that occur throughout the lifespan of a user's visit to a page.
  • CLS (Cumulative Layout Shift): CLS measures the sum total of all individual layout shift scores for every unexpected layout shift that occurs during the entire lifespan of the page. This is important because having pages elements shift while a user is trying to interact with it is a bad user experience.

Google provides results for each of these measures as Poor, Needs Improvement, or Good. In order for sites to be considered performant, all of these metrics should be ranked as Good.

What Is eCommerce Scalability?

Scalability, on the other hand, is your site's ability to handle increasing traffic and transactions. It's the result of three critical factors:

  1. Application Architecture: Your eCommerce platform must be architected to grow and provide quick access to data. 
  2. Infrastructure/Hosting: The hosting infrastructure must be capable of handling a surge in transactions, visits, and other assets.
  3. Data Complexity: The amount and complexity of data on your site are directly related to both performance and scalability. The first two factors primarily impact performance, while scalability relates to systems requiring transactional and user scalability.

Why You Need Both Performance and Scalability

The relationship between scalability and performance is intricate. If your site lacks performance, it won't be able to scale effectively. The infrastructure, application architecture, and data must support high-volume performance, making these ideas directly interconnected. In essence, you can't be scalable without being performant, but you can opt not to scale if your business doesn't require it. It's crucial to base your decision on your growth plans and seasonal needs.

How To Find the Right Combination of Performance and Scalability

In order to find the perfect blend of performance and scalability for your site, you must have a comprehensive understanding of your business, your customers’ journey, your growth potential, and your seasonality. Even with the most basic understanding of your business, you should prioritize performance. With 53% of users likely to abandon websites that take more than 3 seconds to load, performance — especially on mobile — is a key factor. Scalability, however, depends on your business growth plans and seasonal needs. If substantial growth is not on the horizon, and you don’t see a substantial uptick in site usage during certain seasons, you might not need to invest heavily in scalable infrastructure.

How Do You Successfully Scale Your eCommerce Site?

Scaling your eCommerce site — not just your revenue — is a proactive process. Anticipate and plan ahead to meet growing demands and prevent performance bottlenecks. Delaying scaling can result in lost sales, frustrated customers, and a damaged reputation. There are two primary approaches: vertical and horizontal scaling.

Vertical Scaling

Vertical scaling, often referred to as "scaling up," involves enhancing the performance of your existing infrastructure by adding more resources to a single server. This method is like adding extra floors to a skyscraper, making the existing building taller and more capable of accommodating a growing number of visitors.

Key considerations of vertical scaling include:

  • Hardware Upgrades: Vertical scaling typically begins with hardware improvements. This can include adding more powerful CPUs, increasing RAM, and expanding storage capacity on your existing server. These enhancements raise the server's processing capabilities, allowing it to handle a higher workload.
  • Limitations: While vertical scaling can offer a quick solution to boost server performance, it has limitations. There's a point where further upgrades become cost-prohibitive or physically impossible due to hardware restrictions — at such a stage, you may need to explore alternative solutions.
  • Suitability: Vertical scaling is a suitable approach when you anticipate gradual growth and your server's current hardware can accommodate the increased demands. It's a cost-effective option for smaller eCommerce businesses that don't expect rapid, exponential growth.
  • Scaling Software: In addition to hardware upgrades, vertical scaling may involve optimizing software components. Ensuring that your operating system, database, and application software are configured to take full advantage of the enhanced hardware is crucial.

Vertical scaling is a straightforward approach that works well when you have room for additional resources in your existing server and when the growth in traffic and transactions is relatively predictable.

Horizontal Scaling

Horizontal scaling, often known as "scaling out," focuses on distributing the load across multiple servers rather than enhancing a single server's capabilities. This approach is analogous to building more skyscrapers in a city to accommodate a growing number of visitors.

Key aspects of horizontal scaling include:

  • Load Distribution: In a horizontal scaling architecture, the workload is distributed across multiple servers — often referred to as a server cluster. Each server in the cluster shares the traffic and transaction workload, thereby reducing the burden on any single server.
  • Elasticity: Horizontal scaling offers greater elasticity and scalability compared to vertical scaling. You can easily add more servers to the cluster as your eCommerce site experiences increased traffic, ensuring that you can scale your infrastructure in line with demand.
  • Redundancy and Failover: Horizontal scaling also provides improved redundancy and failover capabilities. If one server in the cluster experiences issues or fails, the remaining servers can pick up the slack, ensuring that your site remains operational.
  • Complexity: While horizontal scaling offers numerous benefits, it's a more complex solution to implement than vertical scaling. It requires load balancing mechanisms, data synchronization, and effective resource allocation to ensure even distribution of traffic.
  • Cost Considerations: Horizontal scaling can be cost-effective in the long run, but it does require an initial investment in building a cluster and setting up the necessary infrastructure and software.

Horizontal scaling is an ideal choice for businesses anticipating rapid or unpredictable growth in their eCommerce operations. It provides the flexibility and redundancy necessary to handle surges in traffic and transaction volumes while maintaining performance and reliability.

Cloud Hosting Scaling

In the context of cloud hosting infrastructures like AWS (Amazon Web Services), both vertical scaling and horizontal scaling are key strategies for managing resources and optimizing the performance and availability of applications. AWS provides various services and tools that enable users to implement both vertical and horizontal scaling based on their specific requirements. Here's how these terms relate to AWS services:

  • Vertical Scaling in AWS: In AWS, vertical scaling can be achieved by resizing the resources of an individual EC2 instance, which is Amazon's virtual server in the cloud. AWS also provides services like Amazon RDS (Relational Database Service) and Amazon ElastiCache, where you can vertically scale your database or cache nodes by modifying their instance types.
  • Horizontal Scaling in AWS: Horizontal scaling in AWS involves adding more instances to your infrastructure. AWS offers several services that facilitate horizontal scaling, such as:
  • Auto Scaling: AWS Auto Scaling allows you to automatically add or remove EC2 instances based on demand. You can set up policies that define when to add or remove instances, ensuring that your application can handle varying levels of traffic efficiently.
  • Elastic Load Balancing (ELB): ELB automatically distributes incoming application traffic across multiple targets, such as EC2 instances, to ensure no single instance is overwhelmed. ELB works in conjunction with Auto Scaling to distribute traffic.
  • Amazon ECS (Elastic Container Service) and Kubernetes on AWS: These services enable you to manage and orchestrate containers at scale. You can deploy containerized applications across a cluster of EC2 instances, and ECS or Kubernetes handles the distribution and management of containers.
  • Serverless Computing: AWS Lambda is a serverless computing service that allows you to run code without provisioning or managing servers. It automatically scales based on the incoming request rate. You only pay for the compute time that you consume, making it a highly efficient and scalable option for certain workloads.

AWS provides a range of services and features that allow users to vertically scale individual instances and horizontally scale applications by adding or removing instances based on demand.

How Do You Improve eCommerce Performance?

Improving performance requires a holistic approach. Consider aspects like:

  • Hosting
  • Code optimization
  • Load balancing
  • Database tuning
  • Content delivery networks (CDNs)
  • Responsive design

You should also analyze your site's images, videos, and other assets, as well as JavaScript. Continuous testing — we recommend on a quarterly basis — can help identify and rectify performance issues. You can also set up automated performance reviews to receive notifications when performance deteriorates — a service provided by eCommerce development agencies, including IronPlane.

A note about security: While it may not seem that security plays a direct role in your site’s performance, it is an important consideration in order to prevent bots, phishing, malware, skimming, and other potential security issues.

Finding an eCommerce Platform That Balances Performance & Scalability

Selecting the right eCommerce platform is critical — it's essential to choose a platform that excels in both performance and scalability. SaaS (software as a service) platforms are often a wise choice, as they handle these concerns for you, ensuring your site remains highly performant and scalable. Investing in such platforms is a smart move, considering that their revenue is directly tied to yours.

Balancing eCommerce scalability and performance is an ongoing endeavor, and it's essential to keep adapting as your business grows, that way your website's ability to handle increasing demands can keep up. With the right strategies in place, you can achieve the ideal balance between speed and scalability.

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