Making your web app robust enough to handle scale is one of the most important, yet one of the most neglected aspects of web development. With most startups and scaleups, every action taken is about preparing for when the business ‘cracks it’ and the customers come flooding in. So why is web development often not treated this way too? Fortunately, there are lots of ways to bake this early-on into the process of building a web application to set you up for success.
Let’s define scalability
Scalability is the ability of your app, system, website or network to deal with the increased load or resources required by an increase in users. Scalability often refers to the ability to add resources to your system whilst keeping the existing structure intact.
Without properly structured architecture and the implementation of Scaled Development, your systems can reach a bottle-neck or saturation point leading to crashes, delays, lost customers and sometimes a damaged reputation.
How to know if you’ll need scalability
At Haio, we recommend building digital scalability into any businesses seeking growth or planning a scale-up project. In practice this might look like:
- An increase in the number of application visitors
- An increase in your product range
- An increase in size or features of your website or application
- High levels of data processing
The aim of building with scalability in mind is to:
- Increase security
- Improve your users’ experience
- Reduce load times
- Improve the efficiency of future development
All of these combined will support your ongoing efforts to gain a competitive edge and drive higher conversions, brand loyalty and growth.
What should a perfectly scalable application look like?
- It should run smoothly, reliantly and consistently
- Run quickly with fast data retrieval
- Easy to operate, update and maintain
- Easy problem-tracing
What issues commonly affect the scalability of an application?
- Architecture – this is an essential element to app scalability. Keep a set of design principles in mind, and favour horizontal scaling (such as adding another server) over vertical – and take advantage of cloud storage over physical servers. More on Hosting and Data Storing below.
- Framework Load – Frameworks can limit scalability as well, an increase in features can affect its performance.
- Hardware Limitations – both hardware and software can affect scalability.
- API Integration – these are a huge culprit when it comes to bottlenecks and malfunction. Ensuring your 3rd party integrations can handle over and above anticipated peaks.
- Load Testing – test, test, test. It is essential to the smooth running and sustainability of your product that you find and eliminate bottlenecks and failures early using simulations before the real thing!
More in-depth tips for ensuring a scalable digital product
Data Storage and processing
Depending on the nature of your project, data storage and processing may play a big part in its ongoing success. As such, your data storage choices and their scalability are of paramount importance and can affect the speed and stability of an application. There are many options for places to house your data and the choice is extremely important. Just throwing a bunch of data into an excel spreadsheet is NOT scalable (ahem, looking at you UK coronavirus test data), so where do you start?
Firstly ask, how will this data be used?
Will you be inserting data? (eg: an online ordering system)
Will you be retrieving data? (eg: Gov.uk pages that don’t change too often).
These are two examples of relational data. For this structured variety of data, traditional relational data storage options (SQL) will be suitable.
Is your data more diverse, in a range of formats? (eg. an online store with a range of customer data such as name, address, credit card details etc.) For this, you may require a non-relational database (NoSQL). The good news is that non-relational databases are not only faster due to not having to process multiple sheets of data for one request, but they’re also often scalable in nature. Most non-relational databases are also cloud-based, negating the need for on-site systems which can be expensive, out-dated and difficult to scale.
There are a plethora of non-relational database engines, so have a think about what suits your project the best.
Hosting is the next big consideration. Insufficient hosting capacity can often lead to a performance bottleneck, which can limit any other potential scalability you work to achieve – it must be taken seriously. It’s not a good look if there is a spike in traffic and you have to turn people away from your website because the server has crashed.
- Autoscaling: At a minimum, use a hosting provider that offers autoscaling. Autoscaling adds additional capacity to your server in the event of a traffic spike, without the need to be paying for all that additional resource when you don’t need it. That means when you get a last-minute opportunity to hit the news headlines, you can proceed safe in the knowledge your web-app’s going to hold up.
- Load balance: Most hosting providers for large scale web apps should also have the ability to load balance (improve app responsiveness by distributing network traffic across multiple servers).
Deploy via a Content Delivery Network (CDN) such as Cloudflare: This is a must for any website or web-application. A CDN uses servers spread across geographical areas to provide faster delivery of content by housing certain files closer to the end-user. You don’t want to be loading up an image on a website all the way from a server in Sydney if you’re sat in Bristol! This helps reduce bounce rates following slow load times and improves SEO performance too. A CDN also reduces bandwidth costs, improves a website’s ability to withstand hardware failure and can also tighten a website’s security.
Good code architecture and practices
This helps scalability by providing a well ordered codebase that is easier to work on and quicker for developers to optimise and expand. When building any application architects and software developers should try to keep the Open/Closed Principle in mind. This states that code should be open for extension but closed for modification. This and other SOLID principles are coding standards that if followed will greatly improve the quality of a given codebase.
Good coding practices can hugely increase the scalability of your application. For example, taking any intensive programming actions that could potentially block your application and hand them off in a way that doesn’t slow the application down.
Be prepared for DDoS attacks
DDoS attacks are uncommon but if they arise can pose a huge problem for digital scale-up projects. Whilst it’s easy to get wrapped up in preparing for scale it’s important to remember to prepare for the right type of scaling. It’s no good using a hosting company that offers auto scaling and then picking up the bill when a DDoS attack uses up all your expensive server resources. DDoS attacks operate by coordinating huge amounts of traffic to a single site at a time to try and crash the server. If you have the ability to scale indefinitely then your site will be able to handle the traffic, but you will have to foot the bill for fraudulent traffic. Lots of hosting providers offer DDoS protection so this is a must for anyone thinking of scaling their website so they can be sure all traffic is genuine!
Got more questions about scaling your application? Speak to Harry for a free consultation. We’d be more than happy to help.