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AO.com on innovating in the cloud

Having to deal with 10-times the regular traffic flow for Black Friday 2016 and just about managing to handle the event without any serious issues led AO.com to assess its use of on-premise servers and investigate switching to the cloud.

Speaking ahead of his presentation at RetailEXPO Carl Phillips, director group IT at AO.com, recalls how tiring and worrying that period was for the company: “We’d stood the test of having 10-times the traffic, but we were exhausted. We’d spent three months beforehand not doing certain projects while we prioritised working on how to handle the [expected] extra traffic. We had a dedicated team do out-of-hours load testing in order to find the best routes.”

This three-month testing period required a lot of physical resource as the dedicated team of 10-12 tried to squeeze out as much performance as possible out of the infrastructure but Phillips admits it was slow optimising the code – especially when it was apparent that AO.com was hitting the load balances, which simply blocks customers’ access to the site.

“It can’t be this bad again. We’d got through it but we’d done it with luck.”AO.com on Black Friday 2016

“It took us weeks and months to get the new load balances in, which involved installing physical servers on racks,” he says, but in the aftermath of Black Friday 2016 we acknowledged: “It can’t be this bad again. We’d got through it but we’d done it with luck.”

Moving to the cloud

On January 2, 2017 AO.com was already thinking of Black Friday of that year because it had become its peak season in the space of only two such events. The solution being considered was the cloud but Phillips says the company was ultra sensitive to outages as it is a purely online business.

“We had a deeper look and there was not much between Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft Azure. It was just the operational capabilities – in terms of minimising the chance of outages. Microsoft was not as comforting to us with its architecture and so we decided on going with AWS,” he explains.

The switch involved removing the servers and then simply buying the necessary capacity from AWS when required, which has made the business much more efficient, according to Phillips. He says the fact was that after Black Friday the on-premise servers would inevitably run sub-optimally, which is not good for the environment. “When we are done with Black Friday then we can simply turn off [the extra capacity from] AWS,” says Phillips.

Although the unit cost for the capacity is cheaper than on-premise he says that it is so flexible to consume that AO.com now uses twice the amount of capacity than before because it is so easy to use and “it’s virtually limitless”.

“It has reduced friction and enabled us to do things faster. AWS has enabled us to take out some of the undifferentiated elements from the business,” he says.

Not only does the company have access to this unlimited processing capability but the IT team who would have been dealing with issues such as sorting out server cables and power supplies have been reassigned to instead focus on value-added elements. “We have more time to spend on [improving] performance and investing in new technologies.” And unlike before, he says he now looks forward to Black Friday.

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