Supermarket chain Tesco has re-engineered the infrastructure behind its Internet shopping service to keep pace with an explosive growth in the number of customers using the service. Tesco.com has seen the number of grocery orders rise from 15,000 to 60,000 a week within the space of year, stretching its Web servers almost to their limits.
The growth in orders, which now account for £5m a week, will allow Tesco.com to move into profit for the first time by the end of the financial year, the company said.
The redesign, part of a larger project that will see Tesco.com migrating its databases to XML, has doubled the group's order processing capacity and speeded up customer access times.
"The biggest challenge we have had is the speed of the service for customers. There were an awful lot of issues we had to look at to make sure customers were not left hanging on the line," said Mike McNamara, Tesco.com's chief technology officer.
The first stage of the redesign, completed in July, has given Tesco the ability to switch in new Web servers as the number of online orders increases.
The capability will help Tesco to avoid the debacle that hit a number of online retailers last Christmas, when Web sites were overwhelmed by last minute orders.
Another design change transfers customers seamlessly to other Web servers, if the server they are using becomes busy.
The system also processes less crucial parts of each order offline so that customers stay online for shorter periods, freeing up server capacity.
Tesco.com plans to develop the system further over the next few months by rewriting the system around the XML data standard.
The move will allow Tesco.com's IT department, working in partnership with services company IVIS, to add new shopping services to the site with a minimum of extra programming.
"Let's say I want to add a new service to sell bicycles, I can quite easily develop a bike shop, put in a transaction layer, and use XML to communicate with the bike suppliers," said McNamara.
Tesco initially plans to use Net Perception's software to provide a more personalised service to its customers.
The software, due to be implemented in the next couple of months, will analyse each customer's buying habits and draw their attention to goods or offers they may be interested in.
Tesco plans to extend its use of XML later next year to give each customer a tailored Web site that will reflect their specific interests.
Some older Tesco customers might want a very simple interface, while younger customers might be interested in having lots of options and functions, said McNamara.
XML will also allow Tesco to redirect its most valued customers to their own super-fast servers.
Tesco's Internet infrastructure