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Adoption of the Google Cloud Platform in the retail space is continuing apace, with the fashion retailer AllSaints outlining how its use of the technology is assisting the brand with delivering a more robust and performant online shopping experience to its customers.
The firm’s website regularly receives two million visits a month, and the revenue generated by online sales of its garments and accessories is becoming increasingly important to the overall success of the company.
However, like many retailers, the firm has previously struggled with ensuring its website is equipped to cope with surprise and prolonged periods of peak traffic, and had taken to over-provisioning on-premise servers to protect against downtime or service disruptions.
“Responsive websites and fast page-load speeds are critical for the mobile, connected customer,” said John Bovill, executive consultant of digital and technology at AllSaints.
As such, the company operated a 60-unit strong server farm that had more than enough capacity to cope during peak periods, but – when traffic levels returned to normal – almost half of these would be left idle, which the company considered to be a waste of resources.
“We make projections for rates of business in normal periods, but it’s very hard to predict how sales will rise during peak demand, especially online. Our need for infrastructure often doubles at those times, but we only actually need those servers for a very short period,” he added.
At the same time, provisioning additional capacity was often a slow process, which sometimes caused delays in the company’s plans to expand into new geographical territories or deploy new website features, for example.
To address these myriad issues, the firm decided to overhaul its infrastructure setup by moving to the Google Cloud Platform, which it claims has provided the firm with the ability to provision compute capacity “instantaneously”, across multiple locations, and – importantly – power it down when it is no longer required.
Going deeper into Google
This was not, however, the firm’s first foray into the Google Cloud, having made the decision to make moving its applications and workloads to the cloud a strategic goal in 2014.
It started out by adopting Google’s G-Suite portfolio of cloud-based productivity tools to bolster internal collaboration and communication between the firm’s employees as part of a introductory process to get its office and store-based staff used to using cloud-based tools.
This work also coincided with a switch in its software development strategy which has since seen it favour the use of microservices, and – in 2016 – the adoption of Kubernetes for container orchestration purposes.
The move to microservices was part of a push by the company to overhaul its continuous integration and continuous delivery pipeline, which is now based on Jenkins on Google Cloud and Terraform, so that its in-house developers can speed up the time it takes to release new features and code changes.
As a result, the company claims it has now cut the time it takes developers to deploy new code from 20 minutes to less than five, while enabling them to test code on the same infrastructure that it will run on in production.
“Before, we couldn’t confidently say a bug was fixed until we actually tested it in production. Now we can deploy code in test environments that exactly mimic production,” said Andy Dean, technical operations manager at AllSaints.
“The improved CI/CD pipeline means we can update our services every day, with a shorter lifespan on bugs, and minimal disruption. That makes us more responsive to customer needs, more proactive. And that’s exactly what we’re trying to achieve.”
Simplifying the cloud provider supplier mix
The company had another cloud provider in its supplier mix at this time before deciding to oust them in favour of deepening its cloud ties with Google, on cost grounds, and embarking on a strategy that would see all new apps and services built and hosted solely in its cloud infrastructure.
At the same time, it also began laying the groundwork to begin migrating its legacy applications to the Google Cloud too.
“We were moving 60 individual services, not just one application,” said Dean. “The interdependencies between them meant that it made more sense to move them all at once, and that took a lot of planning.”
All in all, the migration was done and dusted within a week to avoid any network latency issues arising from running applications and workloads in two difference places at once for too long.
“It was the biggest infrastructure change we’d made in the history of the company, so one of our goals was that nobody notice the change,” said Dean.
The company’s technology department worked closely with the Google Cloud team during the migration to ensure the migration progressed as smoothly and efficiently as possible.
“We got things stable within the first week, which was crucial for us. In that week, we moved 60 individual services, including our enterprise resource planning [ERP] tills, to a microservices cloud environment.”
On the back of all this work, the retailer has been able to cut the number of servers it operates from 60 to 30, cutting its infrastructure costs by 50% in the process, by handing off a portion of its infrastructure requirements to the Google Computer Engine, with autoscaling support provided by the Google Kubernetes Engine.
“We monitor the architecture using Stackdriver, but Google Kubernetes Engine really looks after itself,” said Dean.
“The self-healing aspect of Google Kubernetes Engine means we no longer have to make time to restart some of the [virtual machines]. Scaling is now automatic, and so are key maintenance tasks.”
The company still has some cloud migration work to do, a process it predicts will stretch into 2021, as it prepares to containerise all of its back end and internal systems – including its ERP and point-of-sale systems – and move them to the cloud.
“Strategically we are looking to maximise our usage of Google Cloud, driving this and associated technologies to provide the best possible AllSaints experience for our customers,” said Bovill.
Read more about cloud use in the retail space
- While Amazon, Google and Microsoft all claim to be picking up customers in every conceivable vertical market, it is the retail sector where the competition between the big three cloud giants is really starting to get interesting.
- The John Lewis Partnership is building on its earlier forays into the Google Cloud by tapping into its artificial intelligence and machine learning expertise to deliver on its omnichannel business ambitions.