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Today, we are excited to announce Cloudflare Waiting Room! It will first be available to select customers through a new program called Project Fair Shot which aims to help with the problem of overwhelming demand for COVID-19 vaccinations causing appointment registration websites to fail. General availability in our Business and Enterprise plans will be added in the near future.
Wait, you’re excited about a… Waiting Room?
Most of us are familiar with the concept of a waiting room, and rarely are we excited about the idea of being in one. Usually our first experience of one is at a doctor’s office — yes, you have an appointment, but sometimes the doctor is running late (or one of the patients was). Given the doctor can only see one person at a time… the waiting room was born, as a mechanism to queue up patients.
While servers can handle more concurrent requests than a doctor can, they too can be overwhelmed. If, in a pre-COVID world, you’ve ever tried buying tickets to a popular concert or event, you’ve probably encountered a waiting room online. It limits requests inbound to an application, and places these requests into a virtual queue. Once the number of users in the application has reduced, new users are let in within the defined thresholds the application can handle. This protects the origin servers supporting the application from being inundated with too many requests, while also ensuring equity from a user perspective — users who try to access a resource when the system is overloaded are not unfairly dropped and forced to reconnect, hoping to join their chance in the queue.
Given not many of us are going to live concerts any time soon, why is Cloudflare doing this now?
Well, perhaps we aren’t going to concerts, but the second order effects of COVID-19 have created a huge need for waiting rooms. First of all, given social distancing and the closing of many places of business and government, customers and citizens have shifted to online channels, putting substantially more strain on business and government infrastructure.
Second, the pandemic and the flow-on consequences of it have meant many folks around the world have come to rely on resources that they didn’t need twelve months earlier. To be specific, these are often health or government-related resources — for example, unemployment insurance websites. The online infrastructure was set up to handle a peak load that didn’t foresee the impact of COVID-19. We’re seeing a similar pattern emerge with websites that are related to vaccines.
Historically, the number of organizations that needed waiting rooms was quite small. The nature of most businesses online usually involves a more consistent user load, rather than huge crushes of people all at once. Those organizations were able to build custom waiting rooms and were integrated deeply into their application (for example, buying tickets). With Cloudflare’s Waiting Room, no code changes to the application are necessary and a Waiting Room can be set up in a matter of minutes for any website without writing a single line of code.
Whether you are an engineering architect or a business operations analyst, setting up a Waiting Room is simple. We make it quick and easy to ensure your applications are reliable and protected from unexpected spikes in traffic. Other features we felt were important are automatic enablement and dynamic outflow. In other words, a waiting room should turn on automatically when thresholds are exceeded and as users finish their tasks in the application, let out different sized buckets of users and intake new ones already in the queue. It should just work. Lastly, we’ve seen the major impact COVID-19 has made on users and businesses alike, especially, but not limited to, the health and government sectors. We wanted to provide another way to ensure these applications remain available and functional so all users can receive the care that they need and not errors within their browser.
How does Cloudflare’s Waiting Room work?
We built Waiting Room on top of our edge network and our Workers product. By leveraging Workers and our new Durable Objects offerings, we were able to remove the need for any customer coding and provide a seamless, out of the box product that will ‘just work’. On top of this, we get the benefits of the scale and performance of our Workers product to ensure we maintain extremely low latency overhead, keep estimated times presented to end users accurate as can be and not keep any user in the queue longer than needed. But building a centralized system in a decentralized network is no easy task. When requests come into an application from around the world, we need to be able to get a broad, accurate view of what that load looks like inbound and outbound to a given application.
These requests, as fast as they are, still take time to travel across the planet. And so, a unique edge case was presented. What if a website is getting reasonable traffic from North America and Europe, but then a sudden major spike of traffic takes place from South America - how do we know when to keep letting users into the application and when to kick in the Waiting Room to protect the origin servers from being overloaded?
Thanks to some clever engineering and our Workers product, we were able to create a system that almost immediately keeps itself synced with global demand to an application giving us the necessary insight into when we should and should not be queueing users into the Waiting Room. By leveraging our global Anycast network and over 200+ data centers, we remove any single point of failure to protect our customers' infrastructure yet also provide a great experience to end-users who have to wait a small amount of time to enter the application under high load.
How to setup a Waiting Room
Setting up a Waiting Room is incredibly easy and very fast! At the easiest side of the scale, a user needs to fill out only five fields: 1) the name of the Waiting Room, 2) a hostname (which will already be pre-populated with the zone it’s being configured on), 3) the total active users that can be in the application at any given time, 4) the new users per minute allowed into the application, and 5) the session duration for any given user. No coding or any application changes are necessary.
We provide the option of using our default Waiting Room template for customers who don’t want to add additional branding. This simplifies the process of getting a Waiting Room up and running.
That’s it! Press save and the Waiting Room is ready to go!
For customers with more time and technical ability, the same process is followed, except we give full customization capabilities to our users so they can brand the Waiting Room, ensuring it matches the look and feel of their overall product.
Lastly, managing different Waiting Rooms is incredibly easy. With our Manage Waiting Room table, at a glance you are able to get a full snapshot of which rooms are actively queueing, not queueing, and/or disabled.
We are very excited to put the power of our Waiting Room into the hands of our customers to ensure they continue to focus on their businesses and customers. Keep an eye out for another blog post coming soon with major updates to our Waiting Room product for Enterprise!