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Auto Trader UK cuts IT resource use through Google Cloud, Kubernetes and Istio adoption

Auto Trader is the UK's biggest online marketplace for new and used car sales. Its head of infrastructure sets out how cloud, containers and microservices will help reinforce its market-leading position in the years to come

The internet has transformed the car-buying and selling experience for consumers and car dealerships over the past 20 years, particularly where the process’s reliance on print media is concerned.

Classified car adverts used to be a financial backbone for many local weekly newspapers, for example, and specialist print publications such as Auto Trader (UK), until the internet came along and changed the car-buying game for ever.

Instead of having to wait a week to update their print listings, dealerships and private sellers could do so whenever they liked online, or tweak their listings to make their vehicles more appealing to potential buyers.

Pagination limits also became a thing of the past, meaning sellers could, potentially, advertise as many vehicles at once as they liked, without incurring additional costs for having to buy multiple double- or single-page spreads to accommodate and showcase them all.

These changes are often cited as a key factor in the consolidation that has occurred in the local newspaper industry in recent years, which has struggled to adapt to the fact that so much of the advertising that used to prop up these titles has now moved online.

Auto Trader (UK) has had to weather the same shift in market conditions and user expectations, but, by contrast, its business is thriving since it began its transition from being a pure-play print media brand to an online marketplace in 1996.

At the peak of its print media powers, the organisation is said to have sold about 300,000 copies a week, before its owners called time on the print edition in 2013.

From an online perspective, Auto Trader is now reportedly home to the UK’s largest online marketplace for used and new cars, with 55 million cross-platform visits a month, nearly three-quarters of these coming via mobile devices. Overall, it is the 16th largest website in the whole UK.

Russell Warman has worked at Auto Trader UK for more than two decades in various tech roles, and is now the organisation’s head of infrastructure. He credits the firm’s multi-year focus on technology as a key driver for change as being instrumental in helping it weather the print-to-online migration so well.

“We are a technology-focused business,” he told Computer Weekly. “We have got somewhere in the region of 250 people who work across our organisation in products and tech, so we see ourselves as a digital business first and foremost.

“We focus on having fast releases, short feedback cycles and being able to fix something when it goes wrong, and making sure we’re delivering better value to our customers as quickly as possible.”

Multi-cloud moves with Google Cloud

As part of that process, Warman is currently overseeing the migration of a sizeable chunk of Auto Trader’s customer-facing application estate to the Google Cloud Platform (GCP).

These applications have, to date, been hosted within a private cloud environment in Auto Trader’s two datacentres. The decision to switch up its hosting arrangements is part of a wider push by the company to embrace cloud-native application development principles, microservices and container-based technologies, said Warman.

A total of 250 applications need moving, and more than 160 have already been migrated across. The organisation is confident this process will be wrapped up within the next 12 months.

By the middle of 2019, it is also on course to have the crown jewels of its online estate, the Auto Trader website, running on the GCP too.

“We still have our datacentres, and we are in the process of moving our applications to a multi-cloud environment, and we will be across three cloud providers,” said Warman.

“The majority of the applications we use for our customer-facing websites and the applications that support that will all sit on Google Cloud, though.”

Another major motivating factor was the fact that the company wanted to retroactively add end-to-end encryption capabilities to its application estate, in response to customer demand. The problem was trying to achieve this within its existing, virtual machine-based infrastructure setup.

In particular, the organisation wanted to upgrade the security layers between its applications by implementing mutual transport layer security authentication, said Warman.

“We operate the UK’s largest automotive marketplace, and part of that is connecting buyers and sellers together,” he said. “We literally provide a platform for people to indicate an interest in buying a car, and we pass that lead on to the retailer.

“A customer we were talking to wanted us to be able to do that and send that message in a secure way, so the message is encrypted while in transit and at rest.”

Combining Google Kubernetes Engine with Istio

Following some abortive attempts to address that issue on-premise, the organisation decided to move its applications over to GCP, where it could tap into some of Google’s emerging Kubernetes management and service mesh technology, in the form of Istio.  

“It was a problem we spent weeks and then months trying to fix on-premise and then we managed to fix it with Google Kubernetes Engine (GKE) and Istio in less than a fortnight,” said Warman.

Auto Trader is known to be one of the first Google reference customers for Istio, following its launch at the technology giant’s Google Cloud Next Conference in July 2018, where it was hailed as an important component of the firm’s wider hybrid cloud proposition for enterprises.

It is essentially an open source service mesh that Google claims can help enterprises connect and secure the microservices that make up their application estates in a uniform way by managing traffic flows between them, and enforcing security and access policies without needing to alter any code.

Istio and GKE are marketed by Google as complementary technologies, with the latter providing enterprises with a managed environment in which to deploy containerised applications.

As well as enabling Auto Trader to solve its end-user encryption conundrum, the adoption of Istio and GKE has allowed the firm to gain a much more in-depth view of how IT resources are used within its infrastructure, and has cut down on previously unknown amounts of over-provisioning.

“We had a basic model of two CPUs and 2GB of RAM [allocated] for every application, and using Istio and GKE, we’ve been able to get quite granular into what the absolute resource requirements are for our applications,” said Warman.

“In a lot of cases, we’ve been able to give it just a quarter of a core, instead of two cores, or half a core or something. And then we’ve been able to drop the amount of memory down from 2GB to 512MB.

“We run something like 4,000 virtual machines across our datacentre, so, when you extrapolate that data, it is easy to appreciate how extraordinary the benefits of that could go on to be.”

Read more about Google Cloud

Within four months of Istio making its debut at Google Cloud Next 2018, it was already becoming part of Auto Trader’s multi-cloud technology stack, which, said Warman, is a good indication of the early adopter attitude Auto Trader has pervading throughout the organisation.

“We are not frightened about adopting technology early,” said Warman. “We’ve done it consistently with a lot of technologies through the lifecycle of Auto Trader, in that we’ve been online since 1996, so slightly ahead of when Google was first born. We’ve adopted new technologies very quickly in that time.”

Some organisations might have a tendency to wait to adopt new technologies until others have proved the use case for it, but that is not how Auto Trader works, said Warman.

“We were really early into virtualisation, deploying things like VMware ahead of other people, and we’re not frightened to make bold decisions when it comes to technology if it allows us to achieve some of our goals – and that was definitely the case with Istio,” he said.

It was also useful that one of Warman’s colleagues already had experience of an early incarnation of Istio in a previous role and could see the potential for it to transform the security posture of Auto Trader in its customer-facing applications, while drastically reducing the IT resources they use.

The fact that the company essentially had a direct line into Google Cloud’s Istio team, who were on hand to help fix any bugs they encountered during the roll-out, is another reason why the firm had no qualms about getting involved with it, said Warman.

“One of the people in my team worked very closely with Istio, and they were having regular calls feeding back on problems they had found and fixing those as they went through alpha and beta,” he said.

“That’s why we had the confidence to push ahead because we really had a strong partnership with Google.”

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