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Doddle Parcels delivers for Christmas with NoSQL database

Parcel delivery company Doddle has turned to a NoSQL database to deliver on Christmas and set up more shops more quickly

Parcel delivery company Doddle is using a NoSQL database to ease its operations during the Christmas period and beyond.

Doddle Parcels has 81 dedicated shops in the UK for collecting and returning online shopping, as well as sending parcels, situated in railway stations, other transport hubs and university campuses. More recently, it has opened concessionary stores, such as those in the Morrisons supermarket chain and Cancer Research UK.

Doddle was founded in September 2014 as a joint venture between Network Rail and Travelex founder Lloyd Dorfman. Its service enables consumers to collect and return online shopping from its stores around the UK, which are open early until late. Shoppers can choose to make Doddle their delivery address with more than 80 retailers, including Amazon and Asos.

Couchbase, the company behind the NoSQL database the company has deployed this year, said in a statement that Doddle’s “parcelistas” could serve customers on mobile devices, whether online or offline, because of the supplier’s database’s “ability to manage data on the edge”. The database allows the parcelistas, of whom there are about 600 at present, to process information such as parcel status, customer details and specific instructions for the delivery or return of parcels back to retailers.

“Managing data on the edge is about getting the right split between the device and the core platform,” said Gary O’Connor, chief technology officer at Doddle. He said he and his team had looked at other NoSQL database providers, but decided Couchbase stood out “because of its ability to run offline for a period of time”.

“We wanted to re-engineer the systems we had to support our in-store operation,” said O’Connor, who has also held software architect roles at the BBC and Channel 4, as well as at online gambling company Betfair.

“Our aim was to get onto an Android-based platform, so we could deploy to a variety of mobile devices. As part of that, we felt NoSQL was the right answer for us because we need to categorise information by events that relate to a parcel, and that fits well with a document-orientated model.”

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O’Connor added: “Couchbase Mobile’s ability to run offline for a period of time was critical. Typically, we land the stores at stations, we run off 4G for a while, but run into contentions at peak times when everyone is on their mobile phones. From our point of view, we just need to record transactions before synchronising later.

“Also, the fact that Couchbase N1QL [a query language] gives you effective ways of querying across documents was important. Other NoSQL databases do not do aggregate functions from different documents so well.”

The database also means Doddle can open new stores more quickly, and the product’s offline capability is important for this. “One of the things that has slowed us down the most in terms of opening stores is getting the right data connectivity in place,” said O’Connor.

“We can fit a store out in a matter of weeks, but then have a two-month lead time to get the data line in. We are now able to operate effectively within areas where we do not have a fixed line data connection. That’s become more relevant with concessionary environments where we don’t have to rely on their connectivity but can run off 4G.”

Fast through the gears

Doddle started to scope out the project in February 2016, engaged with Couchbase two months later and started rolling out its first stores on the database in September 2016. By the end of November, it had got 35 stores on the new system.

“Couchbase has engaged really well with us. We have been impressed with that, and it’s felt like a rapid move through the gears,” said O’Connor, whose London-based IT team comprises 20 people.

“Black Friday onwards is the peak period for our industry. The database plays a key role in this. Our previous systems worked well in our original store formats, but they required a continuous, high-speed connection to a central server.”

Previously, Doddle had used an SQL server relational database-based system with some bespoke components. “With a NoSQL database, it has become simple for us to add events into the document record,” said O’Connor.

According to the press statement, the move to Couchbase’s mobile technology will reduce the time it takes to open new stores from six weeks to 14 days or fewer, and O’Connor confirmed it would speed up the opening of new stores in 2017.

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