In the brick and mortar world, this holiday season is shaping up to be a wash: More people are shopping, but they are spending less.

The online picture is different, however. Greater numbers of people are going online to shop and spending more. Data collection from retail sites showed that sales were up nearly 14 percent on the Monday following Thanksgiving, known as Cyber Monday, compared to a year ago, according to web information firm Coremetrics. The amount spent per sale rose 38 percent, the firm says.

The trend highlights the importance of keeping the data centres powering e-commerce sites and online traffic running smoothly, says Dan Blum, principal analyst for the Burton Group.

"Availability is crucial," he says. "Without availability, you are going to lose traffic, you are going to lose business."

Trying to revamp data centre operations during December is a sure way to get snowed under, as simple problems avalanche into operational issues. However, there are some fundamental lessons that companies who deal with the crush of customers have learned that companies can consider in the coming year.

Do Spring Cleaning in October

December is too late to worry about holiday spikes in traffic, says Blum. Companies need to start analysing their operations for greater efficiency, what he calls "spring cleaning," in early autumn.

"It's a good time to look at your current content distribution networks and load balancing," he says. "It's too late to roll in new technology, but maybe you can plan for it next year."

In addition to deploying new technology before the end of fall, companies also need to look at staffing issues to make sure that the right people are always on staff or on call to handle problems if they arise. The staffing plan should also be worked out before the end of fall, he says.

"You have to ask, 'What is your minimum staffing level to, not only keep the plane flying, but keep it flying safely,'" Blum says.

Play Defence

The holiday rush heightens at least two online threats for corporate data centres.

Companies that rely on the traffic for revenue, such as e-commerce providers, need to be prepared for opportunistic denial of service attacks. Cyber criminals have learned to hit companies with a flood of data during their highest revenue periods, attempting to extort money from the businesses in exchange for stopping the attacks. In the last year, 29 percent of companies have reported denial of service attacks, up from 21 percent the prior year, according to a survey of firms released this week by the Computer Security Institute.

"If you are not going to pay the blackmail money and you make our living on e-commerce... you might want to think about getting some distributed denial of service mitigation," Blum says. "That will give you the emergency bandwidth to deal with any bandwidth spikes and also give you the capability to resist these attacks."

In addition to denial of service attacks, companies have to be on the lookout for a jump in intrusion attempts typical of this time of the year, says Georg Hess, CEO of Art of Defence, a web application firewall provider. While attacks do not rise proportionally to the increase in traffic, the company's clients do see a 5- to 10-percent increase in attacks.

"During this period there is more traffic so it is easier for the attackers to try out a variety of attacks," Hess says.

Consider a Trip to the Cloud

For companies that have thus far eschewed cloud computing, using the pay as you go resource could be just the thing for holiday spikes.

Among Art of Defence's clients, which include five of the top 10 e-commerce sites in Europe, using cloud resources to spin up additional virtual servers to handle a spike in customer traffic has become a best practice, Hess says.

"They start 10 to 14 days before the Christmas season (preparing cloud capabilities) to make sure that they have the resources they need," he says.

The addition of cloud computing results in a three tiered model for infrastructure: Critical business components stay within the company, static online components are hosted with a large provider, and cloud services handle traffic overflow and redundancy, Hess says.

The technique "is one of the best use cases, from a CIO perspective, for cloud capabilities," Hess says.