A Digital Ecommerce Transformation – The Last Failed Holiday – Part XI

This is Part XI, to start at the beginning goto Part I.

It was mid-November of 2011 when we had finally secured the funding to start the rewrite of TWLER.com. But that timeframe is right before Holiday, the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas that generally defines the Holiday season for retailers, and can account for 50% or more of their annual revenue. Particularly, there are three days that make or break the business, Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday. On those three days the traffic to an electronics retail site increases by 10x or 20x. TWLER is the third highest scaling eCommerce site in North America during this time period, behind only Amazon and Walmart. Designing systems that can survive this type of load is difficult, and operating them is even more difficult. But we had the courage to believe we could do it.

First we had to try and get through Holiday of 2011 with our antiquated ATG system and poorly defined architecture that often called Enterprise services that were never designed for web scale. Why we called the Enterprise services was one of those well intentioned but clearly incompetent EA decisions large companies make. Not understanding the demands of ecommerce, the EA team had forced the Dotcom team to use Enterprise Tax, Payment, and Inventory systems. This isn’t a bad idea, it’s great to have Enterprise services, but only if they scale. If they are not designed with the Internet in mind then you have serious problems. In Dotcom, we operate with zero downtime, we have traffic 24 hours a day, we have demanding latency requirements and we scale 10-20X for a few days a year. The Enterprise services could not handle any of those requirements, so forcing the digital teams to use them out of a desire for reuse and lower costs is idiotic. But that’s how non-digital EA teams think.

So this Holiday, like the last one, was marred with outages, all attributed to Enterprise services that failed under load. It was painful but a great lesson in future architecture principals. The new TWLER.com would be designed to operate regardless of whether Enterprise services were available, it didn’t matter what we had to do, we would isolate ourselves from systems not designed for web scale. This was actually a good thing for everyone but the EA’s didn’t agree because it violated some outdated EA principle.

The only saving grace for TWLER at this point in the maturity of eCommerce, was that people wanted to buy from TWLER. We had good prices on many things and, even though we suffered through the Holiday, people basically distribute themselves in these situations, they make up for your lack of scale by trying again at less popular times. You shouldn’t count on this but human behavior can be one of your scaling algorithms.

The need for a TWLER.com rewrite was confirmed yet again. After we limped through Cyber Monday we started getting down to the business of building teams to implement our new architectural direction. We had great ideas and a solid plan, but without high quality engineers to execute it, we would just be wasting our time.

Goto Part XII