It is 2016 and almost a decade since Amazon launched its all-conquering AWS public cloud service.
Infrastructure hosting as we once knew it, has been reduced to a commodity purchase. If you want to host a website or online application, it has never been easier.
Building a highly scalable, fully redundant environment can be done in minutes, using either a browser or one of hundreds of automation tools.
While infrastructure is boring, it is still an essential foundation of any platform.
For online retailers, things have never been better. Ecommerce sites can take full advantage of a wide range of technology solutions. The nirvana of website hosting is an achievable reality.
At the heart of it is automated scaling. A drop in website performance is detected (usually due to an increase in traffic) and more cloud instances are deployed.
This autoscale works in both directions, so if you have a lull in demand then your application runs on the minimum footprint. This means you only pay for what you use and it is driven by performance metrics.
At least that is how it is supposed to work. So how come almost no one in ecommerce is doing it?
Autoscale isn’t a new concept and it works just fine (ask Netflix). In my experience of working with over 250 online brands, successful implementation is almost zero.
Let’s have a look at why:
To begin with you need to be able to embrace cloud computing. In ecommerce this is primarily the domain of the smaller, more agile stores.
Traditional retailers (think leading department stores and supermarkets) typically use one of the big enterprise platforms from IBM or Oracle. These come with a restrictive licensing agreement.
Until there is a more capacity-based model (perhaps based on transactions or revenue) the option to use cloud is limited. These large complex platforms would also require a long and difficult migration project.
Further business problems materialise with the management of cloud services. There is still a general perception that costs will spiral out of control. The curse of shadow IT has been a blocker for adopting a more flexible approach for several years.
A strategic head of ecommerce can combat this by implementing a clear internal process for server instance creation.
The potential to run up a huge cloud hosting bill for services which aren’t being used is certainly a concern, but one which can be effectively managed.
The primary technical challenge to developing an effective autoscale platform is deployment latency. If you think about a typical ecommerce traffic peak, the sudden increase in traffic is usually very high.
This can be driven by a marketing event such as a TV advert, or something seasonal like a Black Friday sale.
The time taken to deploy a cloud server, while fast, is not instant. Deployment of the instance, application install and network configuration will take around five to ten minutes.
In the world of instant gratification, that is just too slow. By this stage you have missed your peak (and most important) customers.
You can address this problem by scheduling your deployments. For example, if you know you are starting an online sale at 8am, then you can have your environments automatically deployed and configured by 7:30am.
While scheduling in this way might not be true autoscale, it alleviates the problem. It requires the infrastructure team to understand traffic patterns and be closely aligned to marketing activity. In some cases, that is a different problem entirely.
Building your environment is also not a trivial task. The skills and experience required are still considered quite specialised.
Equipping a team with relevant expertise is a significant commitment. DevOps engineers are in high demand.
The solution to this problem might be developing a training path to upskill current system admin roles. Alternatively, you can outsource or work with a specialist partner. Bridging the skills gap takes thought and dedication.
Risk of the Unknown
The risk of getting this wrong, comes with potentially huge implications. A big hit on company sales and brand damage are at stake.
As a decision maker, if an automation project fails then it could have consequences on job security.
Why should you take the gamble, when the current solution already works?
Ecommerce failures have a direct impact on financial performance, especially for pureplay online retailers. Peak trading, when autoscale becomes most relevant, multiplies any problems.
Digital disruption is changing the status quo across many industry verticals. Startups which have technology at their core are able to deliver remarkable business efficiencies.
The prime retail example is of course Amazon. It has completely reset customer expectations for online service. The tipping point for decision-making on technology adoption is moving.
Soon the risk of doing nothing and being disrupted will be greater than that of embracing innovation. Being a fast follower requires agility and being prepared.
So when will the myth become reality?
Automated management and DevOps culture is building momentum. There is a reason it is in fashion: business agility.
Delaying code releases because of inflexible architecture is becoming non-viable.
Just as security is no-longer the number one concern of organisations adopting cloud, pay-for-what-you-use also offers a very attractive financial model.
More business critical applications are finding a home in cloud, so a future when autoscale is more widely adopted for ecommerce will not be far away.
Solving the process and management challenges is the first step on the journey.