6 Common Reasons For Website Downtime

Published May 24, 2024

Website downtime can be a big problem for businesses and organizations of all sizes. When a website becomes unavailable, it can lead to lost revenue, frustrated users, and damage to a company's reputation. In this article, we'll look at the common causes of website downtime, including server issues, network problems, human error, cyber attacks, traffic surges, and maintenance-related issues. We'll also discuss real-life examples of these problems and provide practical tips and strategies for preventing and managing website downtime.

1. Server Issues

Server issues are one of the most common reasons for website downtime. A server hosts and delivers content to users. When server problems happen, they can quickly lead to website downtime and frustration for both website owners and visitors. Let's look at two major server-related issues that can cause downtime.

Hardware Failure

The physical parts of a server, such as hard drives, memory, and power supplies, can fail over time. Old or poorly maintained hardware is more likely to fail, which can result in server crashes and website downtime. To lower the risk of hardware failure, it's important to do regular server maintenance and timely upgrades. This includes monitoring hardware health, replacing old parts, and making sure cooling and power management are working well.

Real-life examples of hardware failure causing downtime:

  1. In 2017, British Airways had a major IT system failure due to a power supply issue, leading to canceled flights and affecting thousands of passengers.
  2. In 2019, Google Cloud Platform had a big outage due to a busy network caused by a bad network configuration change, impacting many services and websites. (Source)

Tips to prevent hardware failure:

Action Benefit
Regular server maintenance Finds and fixes potential hardware issues before they cause downtime
Timely hardware upgrades Makes sure servers are running on reliable and up-to-date parts
Proper cooling and power management Stops overheating and power-related failures that can lead to server crashes

Besides maintenance and upgrades, having backup servers can help reduce the impact of hardware failure. By setting up extra servers or using cloud-based solutions with automatic failover, websites can keep running even if the main server has a hardware issue. This redundancy allows for a smooth switch to a backup server, reducing the length and severity of downtime.

Software Problems

Server software, including operating systems, web servers, and database management systems, is important for website functionality. However, incompatible or old software can lead to server instability and downtime. For example, running an old version of web server software with known security holes can put the server at risk and cause potential crashes.

Real-life examples of software problems causing downtime:

  1. In 2015, the NYSE stopped trading for nearly four hours due to a software compatibility issue after a system upgrade. (Source)
  2. In 2020, Zoom had widespread outages due to a software bug that stopped users from joining meetings and webinars. (Source)

Tips to prevent software-related downtime:

Action Benefit
Regular software updates Makes sure servers are running on the latest stable versions with security fixes
Compatibility testing Checks that different software parts work well together
Performance monitoring Finds potential software issues before they turn into downtime incidents

2. Network Problems

Network problems are another reason for website downtime. Even if servers work properly, issues with the network can stop users from accessing a website. Two common network problems that cause downtime are network congestion and network device failures.

Network Congestion

When a network has high traffic, it can become congested, using up available network resources. This congestion can lead to slow website loading times or complete downtime. Think of it like a highway during rush hour - too many cars trying to use the same road can lead to traffic jams and delays.

Real examples of network congestion causing downtime:

  1. In 2020, Xbox Live had outages due to increased demand and network congestion during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  2. In 2018, Reddit had outages due to high traffic and network congestion during the "Reddit Redesign" launch.
  3. In 2021, Robinhood, a trading app, faced outages during periods of high trading volume, leaving users unable to access their accounts or execute trades. (Source)

Tips to manage network congestion:

Strategy Benefit
Load balancing Spreads traffic across multiple servers to prevent overloading a single server
Scaling infrastructure Increases network capacity to handle higher traffic
Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) Caches content closer to users, reducing the load on the main network
Traffic prioritization Gives critical traffic priority during congestion
Bandwidth throttling Limits non-essential traffic to free up resources for important services

To manage network congestion, businesses can use load balancing, which spreads traffic across multiple servers, preventing a single server from being overwhelmed. Scaling infrastructure, such as adding more bandwidth or network devices, can also help handle higher traffic. Monitoring network performance is important for finding bottlenecks and optimizing resources before congestion causes website downtime.

Network Device Failures

Network devices, such as routers, switches, and firewalls, direct traffic and keep websites available. When these devices fail, they can disrupt the flow of data, making websites inaccessible to users.

Real examples of network device failures causing downtime:

  1. In 2017, Amazon Web Services (AWS) had a major outage due to a typo during a routine debugging of a billing system, accidentally taking more servers offline. (Source)
  2. In 2016, Southwest Airlines had a nationwide outage due to a failed network router, leading to thousands of canceled flights.
  3. In 2020, Cloudflare, a major CDN provider, had an outage due to a network configuration error, affecting millions of websites. (Source)

Tips to prevent network device failures:

Action Benefit
Regular maintenance Keeps network devices in good working condition
Monitoring device health Finds potential issues before they cause failures
Redundant network paths Provides other routes for data if a device fails
Automated configuration management Reduces human error in network device setup
Failover mechanisms Automatically switches to backup devices if failures occur

To minimize the impact of network device failures, regular maintenance and monitoring of these devices are important. This includes checking for firmware updates, monitoring device health, and replacing old hardware. Using redundant network paths, such as backup routers or multiple internet service providers, can help keep data flowing if a device fails. Automated configuration management tools can help reduce human error when setting up network devices, while failover mechanisms can automatically switch to backup devices if failures occur, minimizing downtime.

3. Human Error

Human error is a big reason for website downtime. Mistakes made by developers, system administrators, or other team members can cause websites to become unavailable or not work right. Two common types of human error that lead to downtime are coding mistakes and configuration issues.

Coding Mistakes

Websites rely on code to work. Errors in this code can cause problems, including downtime. For example, a missing semicolon or wrong variable name might stop a webpage from loading. Bigger coding mistakes can bring down an entire website.

Real examples of coding mistakes causing downtime:

  1. In 2017, a coding error caused Amazon S3 servers to go down, affecting many websites and apps that used AWS. (Source)
  2. In 2020, a coding error in Cloudflare's systems caused a major outage, affecting millions of websites. (Source)
  3. In 2021, Fastly, a major CDN provider, had an outage due to a software bug triggered by a customer configuration change, impacting many websites. (Source)

Tips to prevent coding mistakes:

Practice Benefit
Code reviews Lets other developers check code for errors before it goes live
Automated testing Runs tests to catch coding mistakes and make sure code works as expected
Quality assurance Team or process to test website functionality and find issues
Version control Tracks code changes and allows for quick rollbacks if problems happen
Staging environments Gives a place to test code changes before applying them to the live website

Testing and quality assurance processes are key to catching coding errors before they cause downtime. This includes code reviews, where other developers look over code changes, and automated tests that check if code is working right. Version control systems like Git help track code changes and make it easy to revert bad updates. Regular backups provide a safety net, letting you quickly restore a website if coding mistakes take it down.

How these practices prevent issues:

  1. Code Review: Before deploying an update to their ecommerce platform, the development team at a large retailer does a code review. During the review, a developer notices that a change to the checkout process is missing error handling for certain input cases. They catch the issue, add the needed error handling, and avoid potential checkout errors or downtime.

  2. Automated Testing: A media company has a suite of automated tests for their website. When a developer makes a change that accidentally breaks a key feature, the automated tests catch the issue and prevent the faulty code from being deployed. The developer is able to fix the issue before it causes any downtime.

  3. Version Control: An online travel booking website uses Git for version control. When a new feature deployment causes unexpected errors, the team is able to quickly roll back to the previous stable version. This allows them to restore normal site function within minutes, minimizing downtime.

Configuration Issues

Server and network configurations control how websites work. Wrong configurations can make websites unreachable or cause other errors. For example, a misconfigured firewall could block legitimate users from accessing your website. A web server configuration error could stop your website from loading at all.

Real examples of configuration issues causing downtime:

  1. In 2017, Microsoft Azure had an outage due to an expired SSL certificate, affecting many services. (Source)
  2. In 2018, a BGP routing error at Google caused widespread internet outages and made many Google services unavailable. (Source)
  3. In 2019, a configuration error at Cloudflare caused a major outage, taking down websites and services that relied on its network. (Source)

Tips to prevent configuration issues:

Practice Benefit
Documentation Provides clear guidelines and examples for configuring systems
Checklists Helps make sure all necessary configuration steps are followed
Automated configuration management Uses tools to manage and apply configurations, reducing human error
Access controls Limits who can make configuration changes to avoid unauthorized edits
Regular audits Checks configurations against best practices and finds potential issues

Best practices for configuration management:

  1. Documentation: A SaaS company maintains detailed documentation for configuring their application servers, databases, and other infrastructure components. The docs include example configurations, explanations of each setting, and troubleshooting tips. When onboarding new team members or rotating responsibilities, the documentation helps maintain proper configurations and avoid errors.

  2. Access Controls: A financial services firm implements strict access controls for their server configurations. Only a small team of senior system administrators are allowed to make configuration changes. All changes are logged and automatically trigger alerts for review. This helps prevent accidental or unauthorized config changes that could cause downtime.

  3. Regular Audits: An online education platform runs weekly configuration audits. They use automated tools to check server, database, network, and security configurations against predefined standards. Any deviations are flagged for review and correction. This proactive approach helps catch configuration drift and potential issues before they impact the live site.

4. Cyber Attacks

Websites are at risk of cyber attacks. These attacks can cause downtime, data breaches, and damage to a company's reputation. Two types of cyber attacks that can cause website downtime are Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks and hacking attempts that use malware.

DDoS Attacks

DDoS attacks happen when hackers flood a website with a large amount of traffic from many sources, overwhelming the servers and making the site inaccessible to real users. These attacks can be hard to stop because the traffic comes from many places, not just one source.

Real examples of DDoS attacks causing downtime:

  1. In 2016, Dyn, a major DNS provider, was hit by a large DDoS attack, causing outages for many websites like Twitter, Netflix, and Amazon. (Source)
  2. In 2018, GitHub, a code hosting platform, had a DDoS attack that caused outages and slowdowns. (Source)
  3. In 2021, a DDoS attack targeted the New Zealand Stock Exchange (NZX), forcing it to stop trading for several days.

Tips to reduce DDoS attacks:

Strategy Benefit
Traffic filtering Blocks bad traffic based on rules
Rate limiting Limits the amount of traffic from a single IP address or source
Anycast routing Spreads incoming traffic across many servers in different places
DDoS protection services Provides tools and expertise to find and stop attacks
Overprovisioning bandwidth Makes sure there is enough network capacity to handle sudden traffic spikes

Using DDoS mitigation strategies is important for keeping websites available. Traffic filtering techniques, such as blocking traffic from known bad IP addresses or using Web Application Firewalls (WAF), can help stop attack traffic before it reaches the servers. Rate limiting can slow down the flood of requests, preventing servers from being overwhelmed. Working with DDoS protection services that have specialized tools and knowledge can give an extra layer of defense against these attacks.

Real examples of DDoS mitigation strategies:

  1. Cloudflare, a DDoS protection service, was able to stop a 2 Tbps DDoS attack in August 2021 using their Anycast network and advanced filtering techniques. (Source)
  2. In 2018, Akamai, another leading DDoS mitigation provider, helped a major European bank withstand a DDoS attack that peaked at 809 million packets per second by using their Prolexic Routed DDoS protection service. (Source)

Hacking and Malware

Hackers look for weaknesses in websites and servers to gain unauthorized access. They use methods like SQL injection or cross-site scripting (XSS) to exploit security holes. Once in, they can steal data, install malware, or take down the website.

Real examples of hacking and malware causing downtime:

  1. In 2017, the WannaCry ransomware attack affected many computers worldwide, causing disruption and downtime. (Source)
  2. In 2019, a hacking group used malware to target multiple U.S. newspaper printing plants, disrupting the delivery of papers across the country.
  3. In 2020, a ransomware attack on Garmin, a company specializing in GPS technology, caused a multi-day outage of its services, including its website and customer support. (Source)

Tips to protect against hacking and malware:

Practice Benefit
Regular software updates Fixes known security vulnerabilities that hackers could use
Security patches Addresses specific security issues in software or systems
Strong authentication Requires the use of complex passwords and multi-factor authentication
Least privilege access Gives users only the permissions they need to do their tasks
Network segmentation Separates important systems from less secure parts of the network
Encrypting sensitive data Protects data from being accessed or stolen if a breach happens
Monitoring and logging Helps detect suspicious activities and track down the source of an attack
Incident response plan Provides a plan for quickly containing and recovering from a security incident

Examples of protecting against hacking and malware:

  1. After a large data breach in 2017, Equifax implemented a security program that included regular software patching, network segmentation, and better monitoring and incident response capabilities.
  2. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) provides a framework for improving critical infrastructure cybersecurity, which includes guidelines for protecting against hacking and malware. Many organizations, such as the U.S. Department of Defense, have adopted this framework to strengthen their cybersecurity posture. (Source)

5. Traffic Surges

Sudden increases in website traffic can cause downtime if the infrastructure is not ready to handle the surge. When a website has a sudden spike in visitor numbers, it can strain server resources, leading to slow loading times or complete unavailability. This can happen due to various reasons, such as a viral social media post, a successful marketing campaign, or a mention in a popular news article.

Examples of Traffic Surges Causing Downtime

  1. In 2015, the launch of Lily Pulitzer's collection for Target caused the retailer's website to crash due to high traffic.
  2. In 2017, the website of the Australian Bureau of Statistics crashed on census night due to a large number of people trying to complete the online census form at the same time. (Source)
  3. In 2020, the UK government's website for booking COVID-19 tests crashed due to a surge in demand following a change in testing eligibility criteria.

Handling Traffic Surges

To handle traffic surges, it's important to implement scalable infrastructure and elastic computing resources. This means having the ability to quickly allocate more server resources, such as CPU, memory, and network bandwidth, to accommodate the increased demand. Cloud-based solutions, like Amazon Web Services (AWS) or Google Cloud Platform (GCP), offer auto-scaling capabilities that can automatically adjust resources based on traffic levels.

Load testing and performance optimization are also important for ensuring website stability under high load. Load testing involves simulating high traffic levels to identify potential bottlenecks and performance issues before they occur in real-life situations. Tools like Apache JMeter or Gatling can be used to perform load testing and stress test the website's infrastructure.

Action Benefit
Scalable infrastructure Allows for quick allocation of additional resources during traffic spikes
Elastic computing Dynamically adjusts resources based on demand
Load testing Identifies performance bottlenecks and ensures website stability under high load
Performance optimization Improves website speed and efficiency, reducing the risk of downtime during traffic surges

Monitoring and Resource Allocation

Underestimating the required server resources can also lead to website unavailability during traffic surges. If a website is hosted on a server with insufficient CPU, memory, or network capacity, it may not be able to handle a sudden increase in visitors, resulting in downtime.

To prevent this, it's important to regularly monitor website performance and traffic patterns to optimize resource allocation. This involves tracking metrics such as response times, error rates, and resource utilization to identify any potential issues or capacity constraints. Tools like Nagios, Zabbix, or Prometheus can be used for monitoring and alerting.

Autoscaling and cloud-based solutions can help dynamically adjust resources based on demand. Autoscaling automatically increases or decreases the number of server instances based on predefined rules and metrics, ensuring that the website has sufficient resources to handle traffic spikes without overprovisioning during low-traffic periods. Cloud platforms like AWS and GCP offer autoscaling features such as AWS Auto Scaling and GCP Autoscaler.

Practice Benefit
Regular performance monitoring Identifies capacity constraints and resource utilization issues
Traffic pattern analysis Helps predict and prepare for potential traffic surges
Autoscaling Automatically adjusts server instances based on demand
Cloud-based solutions Provides flexible and scalable infrastructure for handling traffic spikes

Real Examples of Handling Traffic Surges

  1. Netflix uses AWS Auto Scaling to handle massive traffic spikes during popular show releases. The autoscaling system automatically adds or removes server instances based on viewer demand, ensuring a smooth streaming experience. (Source)
  2. Shopify, an e-commerce platform, uses a combination of caching, load balancing, and autoscaling to handle high traffic during major shopping events like Black Friday. Their infrastructure is designed to scale horizontally, adding more server instances as needed to maintain performance.

6. Maintenance and Updates

Website maintenance and updates are needed to keep a site running well, safely, and with the latest features. But, these activities can also cause website downtime if not handled properly. Two common maintenance-related issues that can cause downtime are scheduled maintenance and failed updates or migrations.

Scheduled Downtime

Planned maintenance activities, such as software updates, security patches, or hardware upgrades, often require taking the website offline for a short time. While this downtime is planned and needed, it can still disrupt users and business operations if not handled well.

To reduce the impact of scheduled downtime, it's important to tell users the maintenance schedule ahead of time through various channels, such as email, social media, or on-site notifications. This helps users plan around the downtime and reduces frustration.

Choosing low-traffic times for maintenance, such as late at night or on weekends, can also help reduce disruption to users. Tools like Google Analytics can help find the website's traffic patterns and determine the best times for maintenance.

Using backup systems, such as backup servers or failover mechanisms, can help reduce the length of scheduled downtime. By doing updates or upgrades on a secondary system and then switching over, the website can be brought back online more quickly.

Doing updates in stages, such as updating one server at a time in a cluster, can also help reduce downtime. This allows the website to remain partly available during the maintenance process.

Real-life examples of managing scheduled downtime:

  1. Amazon Web Services (AWS) schedules regular maintenance for its services, such as EC2 instances and RDS databases. They notify users of upcoming maintenance through their Personal Health Dashboard and allow users to choose the least disruptive time for their applications.

  2. WordPress, the popular content management system, releases regular updates to improve security, performance, and functionality. They recommend scheduling updates during low-traffic times and making backups before applying the updates. Many managed WordPress hosting providers offer automatic updates and backups to reduce downtime. (Source)

Tips for managing scheduled downtime:

Practice Benefit
Notify users in advance Helps users plan around the downtime and reduces frustration
Schedule during low-traffic times Reduces the impact on users and business operations
Use backup systems Allows for faster switchover and reduces downtime length
Update in stages Keeps the website partly available during maintenance
Make backups before updates Enables quick rollback if issues arise

Failed Updates or Migrations

Software updates and data migrations are important for keeping a website secure, fast, and compatible with the latest technologies. But, these activities also carry the risk of causing unexpected downtime if something goes wrong.

Failed updates can happen due to various reasons, such as compatibility issues, bugs in the new software version, or mistakes during the update process. These failures can make the website unavailable or function incorrectly.

To reduce the risk of failed updates causing downtime, it's important to fully test updates and migrations in a staging environment before applying them to the live website. The staging environment should closely match the live environment to ensure accurate testing results.

Automated testing tools and scripts can help find potential issues and ensure the updated website functions as expected. Manual testing by QA teams can also catch issues that automated tests might miss.

Having a rollback plan is important in case an update fails. This plan should detail the steps to quickly revert the website to its previous state, reducing the length of any downtime. Regularly backing up the website's data and configurations can make the rollback process faster and easier.

Monitoring the website's performance and functionality after an update is also important to catch any issues that might not have been clear during testing. Setting up alerts for key metrics like error rates, response times, and resource use can help find problems early.

Real-life examples of failed updates causing downtime:

  1. In 2019, a failed configuration change during a server update caused a major outage for Cloudflare, a popular content delivery network. The outage affected many websites that relied on Cloudflare's services, making them unavailable for several hours. (Source)

  2. In 2021, a failed software update caused a widespread outage for Fastly, another major content delivery network. The outage affected many well-known websites, such as Amazon, Reddit, and The New York Times, making them unreachable for nearly an hour.

Tips for managing failed updates or migrations:

Practice Benefit
Test in a staging environment Finds potential issues before impacting the live site
Use automated testing tools Catches compatibility problems, bugs, and mistakes
Develop a rollback plan Enables quick revert to the previous state if needed
Backup data and configurations regularly Enables faster recovery in case of failure
Monitor performance post-update Helps detect issues that may have been missed during testing
Use feature flags or canary releases Allows for gradual rollout and easier rollback if issues arise