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I have a website that started experiencing issues when too many people are trying to log into the website at the same time (usually at the start of the business day). Are there some examples of or best practices for displaying a page/message to the user indicating that the system is experiencing higher than expected usage and the system timed out trying to log on the user?

Note that this is an internal website used by people who are familiar with the site.

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migrated from stackoverflow.com Jan 28 '11 at 22:04

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4 Answers 4

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Keep in mind:

  • Be funny.
  • Don't explain it as a programmer. Take the user's point of view.
  • Give a solution like "Come back in few minutes".

For me the best example is the Twitter one with the whale. Really nice.

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I wouldn't go as far as "funny" but you certainly don't want to frighten the user. –  ChrisF Jan 30 '11 at 21:21

Respond with 503 Service Unavailable

Its in the HTTP specification for a reason, and usually a 503 is returned when:

The server is currently unavailable (because it is overloaded or down for maintenance)

This allows the web server to concentrate on processing actual requests - not some message you decide.

This is much better than returning a 200 (Success) only to follow it with some HTML "Sorry the server is too busy"

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3  
However, don't just display "503 Service Unavailable"! –  ChrisF Jan 29 '11 at 11:07
    
@ChrisF: can you do both? –  peterchen Jan 29 '11 at 13:02
4  
@peterchen - I don't see why not. I was just thinking that simply displaying "503 Service Unavailable" wouldn't be meaningful for 99.9% of the users. Twitter's "oops were overcapacity" says the same thing but in "real person" friendly language. –  ChrisF Jan 29 '11 at 13:04

Combining both: you can use custom error pages on Apache and make a tailored-to-your-site error message for the 503 error. I think the phrasing you used yourself is very clear: "the system is experiencing higher than expected usage and the system timed out trying to log on the user" - You could adapt it a bit, but in essence this is clear and exactly what you want to communicate.

As for the 'be funny'-part, hmm, doesn't really go well with me. I would keep it to the point and not much else. As for the look and feel: I would use the most basic elements (colorscheme) to make sure users know they are on the right site, and it makes it a bit less rough than either the big bold black letters on white background, or the internal IE messages with red exclamation marks... there is no need to panic after all. They just need to wait a bit. (Just put it all in plain html. Setting a few colors and a 3 line text doesn't put that much stress on the server.)

If this is an ongoing problem at every start of the day, you might of course look into either more beef on the server end, or try pre-caching common tasks to lighten the load.

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I guess everyone here agrees that the best error message is no error message.

But if it is not avoidable, then it should be easily recognizable and contain:

  • the critical information which is a text about the situation (can be both human and technical, depends on the audience)
  • ideally an appropriate follow-up action to give useful choices

Google Chrome might be a good example for your needs. Try to load a website in offline mode. Additionally, here is an inspiring collection: http://www.flickr.com/groups/web20error

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