Online retail giant Amazon and SA-based Makro have experienced technical glitches on their Web sites shortly before the much-anticipated Black Friday.
Amazon’s technical glitch resulted in customers’ names and e-mail addresses being exposed on the retailer’s Web site. Following this, many reports reflected fears the giant online retailer had suffered a data breach unleashed by hackers.
In an e-mail sent to customers yesterday, Amazon said: “We’re contacting you to let you know that our Web site inadvertently disclosed your name and e-mail address due to a technical error. “The issue has been fixed. This is not a result of anything you have done, and there is no need for you to change your password or take any other action.”
The company did not disclose how many users were affected.
Last week, Amazon revealed a preview of its Black Friday Deals Week, which it said “offers shoppers deeper discounts and more selection this year, with deals in every department starting on 16 November, through 23 November (Black Friday)”.
Commenting on the technical glitch, Ilia Kolochenko, CEO and founder of Web security company High-Tech Bridge, says: “I wouldn’t hurry with premature conclusions until all technical details of the incident become clear.
“Based on the information currently available, it is technically incorrect to call this incident a data breach. This rather looks like an inadvertent programming error that made some details of Amazon’s profiles publicly available to random people.”
Kolochenko points out that unfortunately, even companies like Amazon are not immune to such omissions. “Our IT systems become more convoluted and intricate every day, inevitably causing more human errors. Amazon’s reaction seems to be quite prompt; however, an official statement would certainly be helpful to prevent any speculation and unnecessary exaggeration of the incident and its scope.”
Black Friday, which takes place tomorrow, is traditionally the day after Thanksgiving in North America, which marks the day when retailers move into profitable territory (the black). The trend has been embraced globally in recent years and is regarded as the start of the festive shopping season.
Last year, SA-based Takealot and other online retailers struggled to keep their sites up as overwhelming volumes of people tried to score a deal at the same time.
High traffic volumes
Yesterday, Makro customers were left frustrated as the retail chain’s Web site also experienced glitches. In a tweet yesterday, Makro posted: “We are aware that some of our valued customers are currently experiencing issues on our Web site. The team is pulling out all the stops to ensure that all issues are resolved as soon as possible.” The company later apologised, saying: “Due to the high traffic volumes on our Web site, www.makro.co.za was temporarily down earlier today. We are pleased to say our Web site is back up and running, and has been for some time.
“We are well aware some customers were experiencing difficulty at checkout but this too has been resolved. We would like to inform customers that in-store shopping does not affect the availability of online items.”
Tony van der Linden, CIO of BBD, comments that there is no way for retailers to completely prevent system failures. “While most retailers get it right most of the time and can handle client requests under normal trading conditions; Black Friday is in no way normal trading conditions, as the sheer number of users stress not just the infrastructure, but the Web site that delivers the service. At this point, the conversation moves away from performance to one of scalability.”
Van der Linden says scalability can be achieved either vertically or horizontally. Vertical scalability refers to adding more resources to a physical unit, such as more memory to a computer to create capacity, he explains.
He notes that horizontal scalability refers to adding more resources to logical units, such as an additional server to a cluster of servers to share the required tasks between them. The problem that arises from scaling like this is how to effectively utilise the additional resources. “Conversely, performance bottlenecks will have a significant and unpredictable impact on scalability; at worst resulting in one non-performing system instance affecting all other instances.
“It’s important to remember that every system has a breaking point. Online retailers need to decide if their breaking point is acceptable for them or not. How retailers handle failure and recover from the breakage is more important than attempting to prevent failure entirely. You can test as many times as you want, but you won’t really know until you’re out in the wild what’s going to happen.”
He points out that while retailers can’t prevent a Black Friday blackout, they can reduce the damage it causes.