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How to crash a website... (Warning 'celeb' required)

Yesterday in the Trust IV office, we were having a discussion about the Carfest website and whether it would stand up to the volume of traffic which we anticipated. The event is in aid of the BBC Children in Need charity and has been heavily promoted on the radio recently. A quick check of the site yesterday showed that it loaded extremely quickly despite the heavy use of graphics, all appeared well…..

This morning, I was listening to Chris Evans on BBC Radio 2 and he was plugging the event heavily. He mentioned the fact that tickets would go on sale at 8am so I decided to see what response times were like. We recently installed an instance of WebPageTest in our Manchester data centre so I thought that I’d measure the response times from there.

I ran my first test at 07:57 and saw a HTTP 503 error. The HTTP 503 error means that the server was unable to handle HTTP requests from the clients that were requesting content. A quick check of Twitter confirmed my suspicions. I saw lots of tweets from disgruntled would-be customers who couldn’t get to the site for ticket information.

Disgruntled Tweets

Some people on Twitter were helpfully pasting links to the booking pages on the SeeTickets website that was handling the bookings but plenty of others were just hitting the refresh button and hoping for the site to respond. At the time of writing the site is still down and I just heard on the radio that Chris Evans is now directing people to the BBC “Pudsey” website. This makes sense, reducing load on the carfest server should help it to get “back on its feet”. Unfortunately, if you follow the link on the Pudsey webpage to “find out more about Carfest” you are redirected back to the failing website.

I’m sure that this doesn’t really matter. As with many events such as this, there are a finite number of tickets and demand far outstrips supply. In a situation such as this, there is little incentive for the supplier (Carfest/SeeTickets) to invest in more robust web servers because they won’t see a return on their investment.

Having said that it is a shame because thousands of people will be sitting pressing the “refresh” button on their browsers when they could be doing something more productive. Without investment in more robust web servers or a scalable on-demand infrastructure, perhaps Carfest should consider a lottery or draw to issue tickets.

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