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HTTP Error 503 (Service Unavailable) – What Does It Mean & How To Fix?

Imagine this, someone searches your website and discovers it on the first page of Google. When they click on it, they are met with the uninspiring notification page that reads, “service unavailable.”

How do you think they will react next time they come across that page? The answer is obvious; they are likely to skip it. Errors can be intimidating. If users fail to find the answers you promise to provide, they will likely lose trust in your brand.

However, the good news about errors is that they give us a clue of what caused them, making the troubleshooting process much more manageable.

Unfortunately, the HTTP Error 503 is not as polite as other errors. The error doesn’t give much information about what caused it, but in this guide, we shall help you understand HTTP Error 503, what are the common causes, and how to fix them.

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What is HTTP Error 503 (Service Unavailable)?

The HTTP Error 503 indicates that the server cannot handle the request you just made due to scheduled maintenance or a temporary overload.

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The error is often likely to resolve after some delay, and the server might send a Retry-After header field to help you figure out how long you have to wait before retrying your request.

The 503 error also means that the server you are trying to access is unavailable or too busy. Unlike other errors, a 503 error indicates that the website you are trying to access is online and running, just that you cannot reach it at the moment.

One of the setbacks of this error is that it does not give you details to help you go on. It only shows up as a message indicating, “Service temporarily unavailable.”

The good thing is that the timeout for this error is often brief. But if Error 503 persists, you might have a bigger problem to deal with.

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HTTP Error 503 Variations

The 503 error shows up in many ways. However, all variations come with the 503 code, making it easy to identify. Other websites might use different names for this error, as listed below:

  • HTTP/1.1 Service Unavailable
  • 503 Error
  • 503 Service Temporarily Unavailable
  • 503 Service Unavailable
  • HTTP Error 503
  • HTTP 503
  • Error 503 Service Unavailable or Service Unavailable-DNS Failure

One important thing to note about this error is that it happens on the server side. The problem has nothing to do with your device but with the website you are trying to access.

While there is little to do from your end to solve this error, we hope the following tips will help you try and resolve it.

However, before you think of fixing the errors, you must carry out a full backup of your database, application, and more. Go ahead, if you can, and create a complete copy of your application to a secondary staging server that is not live.

Backing up can give you a clean testing ground for all potential solutions to resolve the error without threatening the security and sanctity of your application.

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What Causes the HTTP Error 503?

Whenever you encounter the HTTP Error 503, the first question you ask yourself is why? Additionally, there is always hope that determining the cause of the problem could help you solve it quickly.

Unfortunately, it rarely happens this way. While it may be hard to determine the root cause of Error 503, a few scenarios are regarded as plausible causes for the error.

Error 503 is often triggered when the website you are trying to access can no longer connect with the server that supports it.

This not only means the server has a technical issue or is undergoing maintenance, as discussed earlier, but also means the server might be facing some malicious disruption like the denial of service (DDoS) attack.

The error can also occur due to technical issues that frequently happen on multiple monthly occasions.

Such problems can be disruptive to cause excessive downtime, especially if the site you are accessing depends on online traffic. An excellent example of such disruption is the prime-time disruption that happened to Amazon in 2018.

The HTTP Error 503 is highly likely to diminish the number of customers who visit an eCommerce site.

It can also be caused by the overflow of visitors during seasonal sales or malicious traffic. However, the site remains connected during such disruptions, just that it cannot support the avalanche of requests from users.

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How to Fix the HTTP Error 503 (Service Unavailable) as an End User?

Refresh the page

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If you are lucky, Error 503 can resolve when you refresh a page. The site you visit could be overwhelmed with traffic, so refreshing the page may just work. Most browsers use the F5 key to refresh or a refresh button somewhere on the address bar.

HTTP Error 503 is usually temporary, so to refresh your page, you can also press Ctrl-R on Linux, Windows, or Cmd-R for MacOS.

However, in most cases, refreshing a page will not be enough to solve the error. Remember, 503 errors have everything to do with the server side, so there isn’t a lot you can do directly.

If the error occurs when you are making a payment, refreshing a page might cause you to be charged twice, so pay extra attention.

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Check if the site is down for other people

When you cannot reach a site for any given reason, you can check whether it is just you experiencing the problem or if more people are having the same trouble. The good news is that there are tools to help you do just that.

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I highly recommend you to use Is It Down Right Now or Down For Everyone, or Just Me. Once you visit either of these sites, enter the URL of the site in question, and the site will help you see if you can get a response from the site you’re getting an error from.

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When you scroll down the sites, you’ll see comments from other users on the general location of other users and other data. Such information is vital, as it can help you determine whether the error is just affecting your region or specific devices.

If you get a report indicating that the error is affecting everyone else, there is not much you can do other than try again later. But if the report suggests that the site is up, then that means the problem is on your end, though this is very rare with Error 503.

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Restart your device

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This procedure applies once you determine that the error is from your end. It will also apply when you test the site you are trying to access on another browser in vain; therefore, the next step is to check with your devices.

There is a possibility that the error would have originated from strange or temporary issues with your computer or your networking equipment like your modem, WIFI, or router.

Sometimes the error could be a result of a DNS server failure. DNS stands for Domain Name System, and the system acts as a translator between the IP addresses and human-readable URLs.

DNS is hosted on the server that handles everything happening behind the scenes. Many routers get responses from DNS servers; sometimes, this cache can be corrupted and cause errors.

The easiest way to reset or flush the cache is to restart your router by unplugging it for about five seconds, then plug it back. Your router should resume after a minute and reconnect your other devices automatically. Once all is set, try revisiting the site.

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Contact the website

Another way to help solve HTTP Error 503 is to contact the website in question directly. Look up their contact information and contact them regarding the error.

There is a good chance that the website administration is already aware of the error, so letting them know or checking the status of the error can be a step towards fixing HTTP Error 503. If you cannot contact them directly from the website, visit their social media.

Come back later

HTTP Error 503 is a common error message on popular websites when there is a massive increase in traffic by visitors that overwhelms its servers. Giving such a website time and trying to access it later is often the best option.

Visiting the website later may eventually fix Error 503 as you can successfully load the page when visitors leave the website.

How to Fix the HTTP Error 503 as the Owner of the Site?

As we have seen, Error 503 happens on the server side; therefore, as the site owner, there is more that you can do to diagnose and solve the error.

Restart the server

Developing a site is an involved task. A simple static page can have a series of moving parts, which can make it difficult to pin down what could be causing Error 503. Therefore, the best thing to do is to restart the server and wait to see if it solves the issue.

Also Read: Where Is Browser On A Computer?

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The method of restarting the server varies, but typically you can access your server from your service provider’s dashboard and run a restart command.

Your server should restart in a couple of minutes, but if you have configured everything to run whenever you boot, visit your site to see if it’s working.

Check resource usage

Your server uses resources such as CPU, RAM, I/O, entry processes, and website inodes. Checking their metrics can help determine whether the HTTP Error 503 notification you just received is related to limited resources.

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You can also monitor your site’s incoming traffic to detect when a surge of unusual traffic happens.

Your website host allocates you a certain amount of memory to be used by your website. When your website exceeds this limit, it can slow down the overall website performance, triggering the HTTP Error 503. The best solution here is to increase your hosting package.

A better hosting package saves you from straining the CPU, as an exhausted CPU can slow down your site’s performance. If your website attracts significant traffic, a boost on your RAM will be a plus, and the more bandwidth you have, the more you receive optimized loading time.

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Check your server logs

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Once you restart your server to no avail, your next step should be to check the server logs. The server logs may also vary based on the server you are running, and your job here is to look around the directory to see if you can find something.

Check if there is any automated scheduled maintenance ongoing

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There are service providers who offer automated updates and maintenance packages, which is a good thing as it optimizes the site’s performance and minimizes security risks. Typically, these updates take place during downtime, and their role is to make everything stay up to date.

Since Error 503 often occurs due to scheduled maintenance sessions, it should resolve itself once the process ends. You can also call your host provider to ascertain if Error 503 is caused by scheduled maintenance.

If you use WordPress, for instance, you’ll realize that some of their service providers automatically update WordPress whenever there are new releases.

So, expect your WordPress to automatically return the 503 services unavailable error whenever updates are ongoing. In this case, you can disable automatic updates and gain control over your server maintenance.

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Stop running processes

HTTP Error 503 can also be caused by exceeding the maximum limit for processes. When you subject your server to too many processes at a go, it can overload and eventually stop working. Therefore, you must stop the processes from running to get your website back online.

If you are using a VPS hosting, you can use the kill command to stop the process. But if you use shared hosting, go to the hosting control panel, select the Order usage page, and scroll down until you find the stop running processes option.

While clicking on stop processes kills all the ongoing processes, realize that this is a temporary fix; hence you need to further your investigation to identify the root cause of many processes running simultaneously.

You can start by examining your WordPress plugins and themes as they are likely to use up resources and conflict with each other.

If you experience HTTP Error 503 after installing a specific plugin, it means you would have found the culprit. But, if you cannot point out a plugin causing a problem, you might be forced to disable all plugins and re-enable them one by one.

Aside from plugins, if your WordPress has poorly coded themes, it can also trigger HTTP Error 503. To fix this, try and change your WordPress theme to a default one, such as Twenty Twenty or Twenty Nineteen. 

Check the firewall settings of your server

A web application firewall (WAF) is responsible for blocking any suspicious traffic coming to your site.

In so doing, a firewall protects your website against malicious activities, including DDoS attacks, cross-site scripting, brute force, and SQL injections. Improper firewall configuration can block connections from a specific client or detect false positives.

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There are incidences when HTTP Error 503 is caused by a misconfigured firewall. When the firewall is misconfigured, the connections will go through but cannot get back to the client.

Your firewall also needs unique settings for a CDN to avoid multiple connections from a handful of IP addresses being misinterpreted as a DDoS attack.

Adjusting your firewall settings depends on several factors, so look at your pipeline alongside the service provider’s dashboard to determine where you can configure your firewall.

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Check the code and error log

If you try fixing Error 503, but it persists, check your error log. The side-logs to your server record formation about activities on your website. These activities may include web pages requested by visitors, as well as errors happening in the system.

You can access your website error log through admin dashboards, and with such information, you can identify and fix errors effectively.

Bugs are common. No matter how hard you try, you cannot catch them all. From time to time, these bug-like errors slip through to cause Error 503. If you try everything to resolve the error to no avail, chances are the cause of the error might be with the code.

As the owner of the site, be keen to check any side codes on the server, and hopefully, you manage to track the culprit, deploy a fix, and see everything go back to normal.

Final Words

It’s no doubt that you might have seen the somewhat vague HTTP Error 503 notification the many times you’ve been online. While there is little to do when encountering this error, I hope the steps above can help you fix the problem next time it pops up.

Although the error goes away on its own, as a website owner, you need to be on top of resolving the situation as it can negatively affect the site performance and user experience.