According to eMarketer, e-commerce sales could reach over £80 billion by 2017. The massive expansion of online retailing means that every business in this sector must ensure their shop front is efficient.
The server technology that an e-commerce business is using should be carefully considered to not only ensure that the customer-facing website is professional and flawless, but also that the IT infrastructure that supports the site is highly efficient.
"The infrastructure your e-commerce site runs on is really the life blood of any store. This is really one area where small businesses should opt for best of breed over cost of convenience," says Ben Dyer, CEO at SellerDeck.
"One of the core things to assess is the speed of the connection, since not only do the search engines penalise slow sites (negatively impacting SEO), but you will lose sales if your customers have to wait. I would always advise merchants to also check the level of support a provider gives, as well as the number of other businesses using the server if it's shared hosting."
For e-commerce, the performance of the server that supports it is clearly critical. There are a number of components that need to work together in order to deliver an efficient e-commerce experience for the customer. One of the most important is how the servers in use can be scaled.
If your business has on-site servers, moving to more flexible platforms such as rack servers can offer the expandability that must be built into your server platform.
With cloud-based services, the connection to the server platform is all-important. There is little point in having highly efficient cloud servers if your business's connection to these severs is slow and inefficient.
Coupled with this is the service level agreement (SLA) that supports the e-commerce servers in use, as Joe Gardiner, head of hosting at CatN, explains: "Make sure you have real people providing expert support. No IT system can be perfect and things will always go wrong at some stage, normally at a peak time. Knowing that you have a responsive, expert team that you can contact 24/7 is vital, especially in e-commerce where a minute of downtime can cost a lot of money.
"It's also important to make sure that the system encompasses integration options, such as secure credit card transactions, credit checks and so on, and that it enables you to migrate away flexibly."
The price is right
Small businesses will always have an eye on costs. Sharing server space (often called multi-tenant occupation) can be risky. If there is a problem with the e-commerce site of a business that's sharing your server, your website could go offline.
And look closely at the security that the server platform offers. Don't forget, taking customer payments will mean that your business has to be fully PCI-DSS compliant.
As the cloud has taken hold particularly within the small business sector, its impact on e-commerce is rapidly making itself felt. Dyer says: "I believe the future for successful e-commerce merchants revolves around two core elements: improved technical and customer services.
Starting with the technical future, the advantages of a hybrid cloud set-up are beginning to make a good case for itself. This gives the benefit of owning your own infrastructure (control) with the ability to rapidly scale into the cloud as and when required. Cloud servers have changed the state of the hosting market for the better, however the lessons are now being applied to the more traditional market."
Neil Gardner, professional services development and operations manager at COMPUTERLINKS, also says: "If you go the route of an elastic cloud infrastructure, you can instantly scale capacity up and down to meet the needs of your particular e-commerce environment. In addition, you only pay for what you use (utility computing) but you benefit from an enterprise-class infrastructure, regardless of the size of your business."
With so many options to choose from, there are a few considerations when making your e-commerce server purchasing decisions.
Firstly, decide whether PaaS (Platform as a Service) is appropriate for your business. Using a PaaS service provider can take many of the IT headaches away from building an efficient e-commerce website. Look at the SLA carefully to ensure that you fully understand what the vendor is offering, and what additional costs might be incurred.
Secondly, check the efficiency of your broadband service. It is important that your business can update the e-commerce store, so a high performance broadband connection is vital. Today with so many online stores to choose from, consumers won't wait for a slow server, so also look closely at how your ISP is connected to the internet.
Thirdly, does the server platform have security built in? Taking card payments from consumers requires the servers that your business uses to comply with PCI. However, also look at the data security that your server offers. This should protect your store from malicious code.
Fourthly, specify a server platform that expands as your business does. E-commerce continues to be a rapidly developing retail channel. With more mobile shopping also becoming popular, ensure your e-commerce server platform can expand as your business needs change.
Finally, look for service providers with high levels of server up time. As your business can only sell goods or services when it is live, partner with a service provider that has the IT experience to ensure their servers are always available. Build 24/7 IT support into the contract to ensure that technical issues are dealt with quickly.
E-commerce seems to have become somewhat of a commodity, especially with the plethora of cloud-based services available. In the end your business's online store is only as good as the servers that support it. Taking the time to define your needs, and then locate a service provider to match these, is time well spent, and could save your business huge amounts of money in the process.