How Much Downtime is Too Much?

It is an unfortunate fact that every single website in existence is vulnerable to website downtime. Because at least some downtime is inevitable, the question is not whether or not your site will go down, but rather how much downtime is too much? Is there a magic number that we should be aware of? Is there a line that, once your website has crossed it, you are suddenly in “too much downtime” territory? The fact of the matter is that there is no magic number to guide us. There are, however, ways to determine if your site is experiencing more than its fair share of downtime and practices you can put into place to ensure that your site never enters the “too much downtime” zone.

Understanding the Difference Between Planned Downtime and Unplanned Downtime

When determining whether or not your site has become prone to unacceptable levels of downtime, you first have to understand that there are two different types of downtime including planned downtime and unplanned downtime. Planned downtime occurs due to things like maintenance and upgrades of firmware, hardware, drivers, and software. All sites will experience planned downtime at some point in time. The good news is that when downtime is planned, you can minimize damage by scheduling the downtime during a period when it will have little to no impact on your business. Because you do have some control over the impact of planned downtime, it becomes evident that the problem is really with unplanned downtime when trying to avoid too much downtime. 
Unplanned downtime is very different in nature from planned downtime. It is almost impossible to anticipate, harder to manage, and can be caused by a vast number of factors. Some of the things that commonly contribute to unplanned downtime include component failures, human errors, software glitches, power outages, and even natural disasters. Anything that could cause your site to go down unexpectedly is an unplanned downtime risk. 

The Real Answer to The Question

Because there are so many tools at your disposal that can help you prevent website downtime and minimize the impact downtime has on your business, the real answer to the question of “how much downtime is too much” is simple. Any amount of unnecessary downtime that your site experiences is too much. If there are steps you could have taken to minimize your website’s downtime and you did not take those steps, then your site is indeed experiencing too much downtime. So what can you do to minimize your site’s downtime and stay out of the “too much downtime” zone? 

Utilize a Reliable Website Hosting Provider

If you are not hosting your website on your own servers, the first thing you need to do to minimize downtime is to ensure that you are hosting your website with a reliable hosting provider. Most hosting companies offer some form of an uptime guarantee and they advertise that guaranteed uptime in the form of a percentage. To determine whether or not the uptime being offered by a hosting provider is acceptable, you need to take that percentage and turn it into tangible time. This allows you to determine exactly how much time you can expect your site to be down due to unplanned downtime each year, as these guarantees only apply to unplanned downtime and do not apply to instances of planned downtime. 
Once you begin turning uptime percentages into hours, you will suddenly realize just how significant the difference in uptime guarantees can be. For example, hearing that Company A offers 99.9 percent uptime while Company B offers 99.999 percent uptime may lead you to believe that there isn’t a very big difference in the uptime being offered by the two competitors. However, in reality, 99.9 percent uptime equates to nearly 9 hours of downtime per year whereas 99.999 percent equates to only 5 minutes of unplanned downtime annually. When looking at it this way, it soon becomes evident that even a very slight difference in uptime percentages can equate to significant differences in the actual amount of downtime that your site will suffer each year.
Let’s say, for example, that your site is experiencing an uptime rate of 99 percent. That may sound like it isn’t too bad, when it really means is that your site is suffering 3.65 days of unplanned downtime each and every year. That is, indeed, well above an acceptable level of unplanned downtime. Considering that an hour of downtime can literally cost tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars, 3.65 days of downtime per year can have a crippling effect on a business’s bottom line. Because of this, it is critical to partner with a quality hosting provider if you do not want your site to suffer from too much downtime.
With that being said, you cannot rely on the guarantees offered by the hosting companies alone to determine whether or not a provider is reliable. Some companies may inflate the uptime numbers they publish. While they will refund you for the difference in downtime experienced, that refund only applies to what you paid for that difference. For example, if you are promised 99.99 percent uptime and you only receive 99 percent uptime, the hosting provider is only responsible for refunding you for the time your site was down beyond the period they had promised. Oftentimes this equates to only a few dollars, or even just a few cents, and in no way compensates you for the profits you lost due to the extended downtime or the damage that downtime did to your reputation. Because of this, you will want to research a company’s reputation for reliability as well as looking at the uptime ratio they promise before choosing the hosting provider that is right for you.

Make Proper Planning a Priority

Once you have secured a reliable hosting provider, you need to ensure that you are taking specific measures to reduce your site’s downtime. For example, when dealing with planned downtime, you need to reduce updates by properly managing the hardware and software mix. You can also reduce planned downtime by finding out if there are ways to make certain upgrades without encountering any actual downtime of your website, such as using server clustering and manual failovers. The utilization of managed hosting services is another way you can reduce the impact planned downtime has on your website.  
Another key to avoiding unnecessary website downtime is the utilization of a quality website monitoring service. By utilizing a website monitoring service you can ensure that you know about an instance of downtime the moment it happens. This allows you to go to work as quickly as possible to get your website back up and running. A website monitoring service can also help you pinpoint causes of downtime, can alert you of trends that may indicate impending downtime, and can even provide features that allow you to put automated processes into place that reduce the impact downtime has on your site’s visitors. For example, Alertra’s website monitoring service offers webhooks that can call an external API to switch your DNS to a backup should downtime occur, ensuring that your site is still functional for end users even before the actual problem is resolved.
Once you have taken measures to minimize the impact of planned downtime and you have quality hosting and website monitoring in place, you can go to work preparing for unplanned downtime. For example, you can utilize server clusters and load balancing, website version control testing, security management, and data backups to ensure that the impact of unplanned downtime is minimized and that you are ready for it when it does occur. 
By utilizing the proper tools and resources and putting plans into place for when the inevitable does happen, you can ensure that your website’s downtime and the impact it has are kept to a minimum and that you never have to worry about entering into the territory of too much downtime again.