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'Shark Tank' startups ride Rackspace for Web traffic spike

'Shark Tank' entrepreneurs often see Web traffic spike and sales skyrocket after the show. The cloud allows them to survive their new product feeding frenzy.

When investor Mark Cuban buys a company's pitch on the television show "Shark Tank," customer response can put an overwhelming strain on that company's infrastructure. The cloud enables entrepreneurs to successfully ride the surge in a way that would otherwise be impossible.

Mark Cuban Companies, an investment portfolio, is made up of around 100 companies, including 80 "Shark Tank" entrepreneurs that were often independently ill-prepared for the pending traffic barrage that comes after appearing on a show seen by 8 million people. Mark Cuban Companies partners with Rackspace or uses other cloud vendors such as Amazon and Microsoft to advise these startups in preparation for the spike, in particular with the technical infrastructure, as well as financial analysis and sales support.

The startups can see website traffic jump from 100 visits a week to 80,000 concurrent connections after the show airs, said Michael Johnstone, director of Web services for Mark Cuban Companies, which is based in Dallas. Handling the shift from relative anonymity to nationwide attention is an IT challenge that's insurmountable without the cloud.

"We can't build 50 servers sitting around for a month and can't tear them down on Monday -- that business model doesn't work," Johnstone said. "The cloud is really the only way we can solve this."

Deadlines and details matter

There's a difference between preparing for a spike and handling consistent high traffic, Johnstone noted. Each preparation is different, but the work generally begins with a cache of all Web pages if the startup uses a content management system. It also involves checking all plug-ins to find things that are high performance and those that impede performance, especially if the site was self-built. If the company uses WordPress or Magento, the advisory team looks for specific plug-ins that works well with the programs.

"The initial target [for page load times] is four seconds," Johnstone said. "That has to be a high-priority item."

Marc Cuban Companies relies heavily on Rackspace Digital for portfolio members in a range of industries and DevOps automation for Web content management and e-commerce investments. Companies in the portfolio use Cloud Sites, Cloud Files, Cloud Servers and CloudDB. A few have dedicated servers in a hybrid configuration; the umbrella company uses Rackspace Managed Cloud for its website.

We can't build 50 servers sitting around for a month and can't tear them down on Monday -- that business model doesn't work. The cloud is really the only way we can solve this.
Michael Johnstonedirector of web services for Mark Cuban Companies in Dallas

Some companies want to focus on marketing first, Johnstone said. And while that is important, keeping the website running should remain the highest priority because none of those marketing efforts will matter if no one can see the site or order the product.

That could mean scaling back the site itself temporarily to handle the strain. For example, in advance of a spike, Johnstone recommends limiting the home page to one image rather than a series of rotating images.

Deadlines and details matter, Johnstone added. Frequent testing and reassessment is critical to know where gains are being made, so follow the sales process to ensure customers can make it through every step needed to complete a transaction. As the air date approaches, it's also critical to know who the dedicated contacts are and understand when to stop adding items to the to-do list.

"Unless something is literally broken and not functioning, you have to call it quits because the risk in introducing a change is too great," Johnstone said.

LED lights, camera, action

Brian Lim, CEO of EmazingLights LLC, a California-based retailer of LED gloves and rave lights, and sister company iHeartRaves, taped an episode of "Shark Tank" last December and Cuban opted to fund the company. Prior to the partnership, EmazingLights didn't have the funds for a system administrator and barely enough to pay for an in-house developer.

"As soon as we made the deal, I was immediately thinking in my head 'How are we going to handle the traffic'?" Lim said. "We were definitely not prepared."

The startup was moved from a dedicated environment to a full-cloud Magento environment in preparation for the initial airing. The company's site saw an increase in traffic of more than 700% after its episode aired, with a peak of 5,000 visitors on the site for more than five minutes and 40,000 total sessions. That was nearly as many visitors as the site typically saw in an entire day.

The initial plan with Rackspace was to go with a hybrid model of half dedicated and half cloud bursting, but two months before the air date the Rackspace cloud team voiced concern. The late change to managed cloud resulted in a final migration two days before the air date, but it also involved two months of load testing the new environment to ensure everything would run properly and scale up or down afterward as needed, Lim said.

"To have the ability to scale up quickly again for a rerun or another big spike, that really gives me that peace of mind," Lim said.

And while other major public cloud vendors have advantages, none were feasible for EmazingLights, Lim said.

"Amazon [Web Services] is great, but you really have to know what you're doing," Lim said. "Maybe if we had an army of system admins and were able to use that infrastructure, but we didn't have that luxury."

In hindsight, Lim noted that EmazingLights should have opted for database replication, because while the severs and Web nodes stayed up during the flood, the database wasn't able to take orders in some instances. He recommended that anyone who encounters these types of spikes have a backup site ready.

When traffic to EmazingLights' site became unmanageable, visitors were redirected to a secondary "Shark Tank" site that linked them to EmazingLights' store on Amazon or to YouTube videos of the product in use.

Mark Cuban Companies has used other major cloud vendors such as Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure, depending on business needs or a company's existing relationship with a particular platform, Johnstone said. Still, the managed cloud offering is often the best answer for many companies.

"Every situation is different, but the managed support and the extra handholding is definitely important," Johnstone added.

Regardless of the provider, a robust backend that can scale is key to surviving these spikes. IT pros need to make sure they've looked at their software and identified problems and bottlenecks. For Mark Cuban Companies, the cloud is the only way to do that, Johnstone said.

Trevor Jones is the news writer for SearchCloudComputing. You can reach him at [email protected].

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