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COP24 Conference Website Goes Down—How It Could Have Been Avoided

Thanks to Mathias from Pixelant for sharing!

At peak times during the conference, the United Nations COP24 website was unavailable for hours at a time, as reported 4 December in Polish media. An outage of a mission-critical website of this nature is the last thing anyone wants.

A reliable digital presence is an essential part of modern communications. Websites rely on complex technologies. It is fair to say the COP24 website was not set up to handle the large number of visitors generated by a major international event. What happened here? How can this kind of problem be avoided? How can you ensure that your web presence can handle high traffic and peak demand?

What happened with COP24’s website?

The aim of UN’s COP24 conference is to match plans of action to mitigate global climate change to the promises made in the 2016 “Paris Climate Agreement.” As such, it is highly controversial in some countries and was expected to garner a lot of public attention. When the conference kicked off, the infrastructure behind TYPO3 CMS was unable to serve the large numbers of simultaneous visitors to the site.

  • Through 2 Dec—COP24 preparation and kickoff

    • online and functional

  • 3 Dec—COP24 official start

    • strong global media attention and reporting

    • massive increase in public interest and site traffic

  • 3 Dec—Repeated service interruptions on COP24 website

    • The site’s servers and infrastructure, though enough for normal and non-peak traffic, were not up to dealing with the flood of visitors.

    • Server overload, due to insufficient infrastructure caused the outages. This is the logical conclusion based on the following facts:

      • The TYPO3 CMS instance was running and able to display its error messages, but

      • it wasn’t receiving data from the underlying infrastructure. We know this because

      • the CSS styling files weren’t sent to the browser, subsequent requests then delivered these static assets.

    • Even with an Nginx “reverse proxy” in front of  the website (Nginx is a web server technology designed to deal with high traffic), at some point there were too many requests and it wasn’t even able to deliver static assets to the website.

Conclusion: The COP24 website project tender criteria were 95% based on (the lowest) price. This lead to inadequate hosting and infrastructure choices that let the rest of the project down. To avoid these issues, important projects should be planned by qualified service providers according to realistic needs, not sent out to the lowest bidder. An official certified TYPO3 GmbH partner would have been able to advise and plan this project accordingly.

How can your website handle high traffic and peak demand?

When building a site for high traffic, you have to take a number of factors into account. We suggest that your public tender or Request for Proposals (RFP) includes performance and scalability into account and does not focus on price alone as the deciding criteria.  Any of these could have contributed to the problems the COP24 website encountered:

  • Modern cloud hosting was developed to resolve scalability issues. Old style “dedicated hosting” provides one server to handle all incoming traffic and can easily be overwhelmed.

  • Caching. If you have many people requesting content at the same time, it will strain your database servers. If you “cache” your website, the content doesn’t have to be generated on-the-fly. Large mission-critical websites typically rely heavily on caching. TYPO3’s core includes caching by default.

  • Optimization. All files delivered to the user, such as images, CSS, and JavaScript files should be minimized and optimized for fast download and reduced bandwidth.

  • CDN: Content Delivery Networks. Instead of serving files directly from one source, CDNs distribute media and dynamic content across the globe.

What is TYPO3?

The error message said the website was built with a system called “TYPO3”, that it is “open source software” and “comes with no warranty.” What does that all mean?

The COP24 conference website was built on TYPO3 CMS, which is an ideal choice for this type of website—if set up correctly. TYPO3 CMS is an enterprise, open source content management system that powers hundreds of thousands of websites in Europe and around the world, with a proven track record of serving secure, high-traffic, mission-critical websites in government, industry, and education.

In an independent study, Google researchers reviewed the performance of all major content management systems. It showed TYPO3 CMS delivering the fastest websites. When users first access a site, TYPO3 gives blazingly fast “first contentful paints.” However, the modern internet requires a number of technologies to deliver websites, and the content management system is only one part of the picture. To do its job, a CMS relies on a database to store and deliver information on time; caching, to generate and deliver popular pages faster; and a range of other systems, some of which were not up to the task for the COP24 website.

What is open source software?

Open source software is free to use, free to understand, free to modify, and free to share with others. Major open source projects, like TYPO3 CMS, attract thousands of developers and businesses who collaborate on improving and maintaining it.

The debate about open source is over. During the last decade, technical executives—CIOs and CTOs—have concluded that open source is a safe bet: secure and of high quality. Microsoft moved into open source long ago, and recently purchased GitHub, a popular collaboration platform for open source projects. More and more governments have moved to an “open source first” policy because of benefits including improved ROI, reusable functionality, access to local service providers, and more.

Unlike most open source systems, TYPO3 CMS is backed by a commercial entity, TYPO3 GmbH, that offers full vendor-SLAs, a network of qualified official partners, full project backing and review, and other guarantees.

TYPO3 GmbH and our partner network can help you make your next critical web project a success from RFP to implementation and support. We can help protect your next high-profile project from the factors that led to the unfortunate incident with the COP24 website.

What about warranties?

Almost all software comes without warranties, even software you pay to use. Open source software is freely available for anyone to use, but you are ultimately responsible for what you do with it. TYPO3 GmbH offers service level agreements with guaranteed response times, 24/7 support for the CMS, projects reviews and more to ensure the initial and ongoing success—and availability—of your web presence.

Major web project coming up? We can help.

Our experts can help you create an RFP for your next project that takes your high-priority issues and specific needs into account, like performance, traffic, scalability, and infrastructure configuration. We can also provide vendor-support and project guarantees for projects carried out by our official implementation partners.

“COP24” is the informal name for the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that took place in Katowice, Poland in December 2018.
“GmbH” is short for Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung, the German equivalent of a Ltd. (UK) or LLC (US) limited liability company.