Data Center

Pie Face? Star Wars Lego? IT hosts deliver 2015's Xmas toys

December 2014: picture the scene. A child’s face sobbing, begging for the Elsa doll from Frozen. She’s cute with those huge Disney eyes – the doll, not the kid – and she sings that power ballad of child emancipation, Let It Go. But the shops are out of stock and the prices offered by opportunist online sellers would buy you a good second-hand car. There are rumours of availability here and there but the store website has gone down on the back of voracious demand. And lo, nativity miracle, a job lot arrives and you can actually buy it for less than RRP a few days later, leaving you wishing you hadn’t sold that kidney.

It happens every year seemingly, from Buzz Lightyear to Beyblades and Furby we get caught up with the marketing frenzy and queue up for pieces of plastic, fluff and cheap chips in the great international celebration of capitalism and consumerism. But today’s technology is at least helping to mitigate parent/child disappointment and related ructions.  

Notably, third-party datacentre power is helping to deal with spikes in demand by providing an overdrive capacity.

“It’s a wonderful fit,” says Paul Bolt, vice president at datacentre hosting specialist Rackspace whose customers include toys retailer The Entertainer as well as Office shoes, Domino’s pizza and many other sellers.

“Short-lived, spiky projects are just a match made in heaven. We see a lot of commerce sites with apps designed to run on tablets come to us because traditional IT departments wouldn’t know how to deal with that level of scalability. We can take a product catalogue and mimic what would happen if hundreds of thousands of consumers went to it.”

Bolt believes that the problem retailers experience at peak periods like Christmas should not be such a big deal.  

“You occasionally speak to companies that didn’t know marketers had scheduled a TV ad but the vast majority of spikes are highly predictable,” he says. “If you send an email with a 50% discount offer to 500,000 people, or you know Cyber Monday, Black Friday or Singles Day is coming, then you know what to expect.”

Rackspace’s answer is to offer a burst-mode capability so stores can deal with the extra demand without paying for the surplus capacity typically involved with in-house compute, bandwidth and storage.

“‘Own the space and rent the spike’ is the commercial model we discuss a lot and use with stores,” he adds. “It’s about peaks and troughs and with any app that is so hugely mission-critical you need infrastructure that can deal with the throughput.”

Once seen as exotic, hosts have become a standard way for retailers to add headroom and sellers that are wedded purely to their internal servers are rare today.

“Sometimes there’s a software licensing element [that causes issues] but all the big guys in the [enterprise and e-commerce] space have, or are launching, cloud-friendly licensing models. If you keep everything in-house the infrastructure just sits there waiting and waiting until the point where that equipment, and the capex outlay that was made, is worth nothing.”

The “world wide wait” for pages to load is a major issue for retailers. There’s an element of ‘they would say that, wouldn’t they?’ about it but Rackspace-commissioned research suggests almost one in five UK consumers will give a site a maximum of 10 seconds before taking their interest or business elsewhere.

“The demands consumers have on online retailers are staggering,” Bolt says. “It’s not just if they can’t place an order; it has a huge reputational impact and if it doesn’t work they will probably never go back. It’s not just losing sales but customers too, and really there’s no excuse not to have a high-availability, performant website.”

Rackspace is building up an ecosystem in this area, working with software companies like e-commerce specialists Magento and SAP-owned Hybris. Of course, technology won’t be able to do much if a Chinese warehouse full of the latest goodies goes up in flames, and then there is the other end of the value-chain to consider where failed courier options and busy roads can lead to disappointment. But taken together these suppliers’ work means that there’s a much better chance you will be able to find this year’s must-have toy and know where best to pick it up, whether that’s at home, in store or in some third space.

Looked at from a broader, non-Christmas perspective, sharing the same cloud landscape as the all-conquering Amazon Web Systems is tough competition but Bolt says Rackspace has its own USPs and can happily coexist and partner with AWS for years to come.

“We talk about ‘cloud’ a lot but it’s actually just an underlying technology. If you look at AWS it’s $8bn [revenue, based on run rate] and growing at [almost] 80% per year. There’s no doubt they’ve come out the gate quickly but when you talk about infrastructure scaling and commerce solutions and hybrid environments we have vast experience. It’s what we call managed cloud. This market is maturing to managed and unmanaged flavours. With some services, you download something like the [famously dense and technical] old Haynes car manual, and on the flipside lots of companies don’t want to build teams of skilled engineers, or they don’t feel the need to figure out which apps are right for that model and which are not.”

AWS’s growth is a thing of wonder but even its vaulting ambition will never cover every opportunity. Bolt notes that the fall in prices of third-party infrastructure obscures the fact that finding experts in knottier areas like monitoring and scaling private cloud environments is tough. 

“The largest providers offered economies of scale, ‘managed cloud’ is about offering economies of expertise and engineering skills. We work with system integrators to help them deploy code in the right way on the right infrastructure. Ultimately the customers want to drive a certain outcomes and want a provider to help them do that. The market is speaking and it’s our job to provide support.”

Back to Christmas… Once upon a time the reindeer and elves got all the credit. Today, we adults know that it’s the good people working in datacentres and hacking e-commerce software that are Santa’s real little helpers.


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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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