Sparkfun’s Free Day: A Giveaway Meets a Server Stress Test

Two hours – that is all it took for $150,000 to be given away on the internet.  Now for most of us, it seems very foolish to let $150,000 just be burned off like the fuse on a stick of dynamite.  But for the electronics prototyping distributor Sparkfun, it was a calculated, well-planned charity.

This massive event is known as Sparkfun Free Day, a day unto which the distributor from Boulder, CO decides to give away rewards to its customers in order to show appreciation and support.  For each person that logged in or created an account, they got the opportunity to spend up to $100 of in-store credit on anything in Sparkfun’s store by answering technical trivia while they were shopping.  Furthermore, they donated up to $30,000 to local charities while the event was happening.

In 2010, the number of participants completely disabled Sparkfun’s servers and had the goal of $100,000 in freebies get consumed in just 1 hour and 44 minutes.  This year, the results were no less different.

From its opening at 10am CST on January 13th, some of my colleagues and I attempted to get in to get our share of free Bluetooth modules, calipers, and accelerometers.  This is how far we made it: the option to take the quiz or take a loyalty benefit (based on how many years you have been a Sparkfun customer).

But unfortunately for us, any attempts to get further than this caused a boatload of problems.  Like this:

And this:

And most often, this:

So what happened to our browser refreshed attempts to gain freebies?  Well, you can thank the sheer number of participants for these images.  What Sparkfun basically did to themselves for two hours is an unintentional DoS; a Denial of Service on their own servers.  So not only did Free Day benefit their consumer base, it also tested their servers to the utter limits.  Now that’s what I call a very expensive (but quite clever) test.  

Here is a full recap of the stats from Free Day 2011, and it is pretty interesting to see the results.  Regardless of how everyone fared during those tumultuous two hours, one has to give Sparkfun a ton of credit.  And like all contests, there’s always the hope of next year.