This article first appeared in the Autumn 2017 issue of The Record.
How does an online fashion retailer that markets its clothes to more than 13 million consumers in their twenties gain a devoted following on social media, support 1,500 new employees and double its global sales by 2021? UK-based company Asos opted to replace its aging core software with a completely new e-commerce platform that uses micro¬services running on Microsoft Azure.
“We needed a platform that would enable consumers to shop in their own language and to choose payment methods and delivery options appropriate for them,” says Bob Strudwick, CTO at Asos. “We needed it to be flexible so that we could try new things in the presentation layer, in the way that consumers interact with us. Currently, that means a mobile-first strategy, and in the future, it will mean conversational commerce and augmented reality. It will mean integration with social platforms.”
Microsoft’s cloud platform was an obvious choice for Asos, particularly because its platform-as-a-service (PaaS) offerings meshed well with the retailer’s existing technology and business model.
“We’re a Microsoft shop, so Microsoft Azure is a natural fit from a development tools and product services perspective,” Strudwick explains. “We also bought heavily into the PaaS concept. We wanted to get the maximum amount of competitive advantage out of the team we’d assembled, and we didn’t want to expend those resources on commodity functions like worrying about database backups and software patching. Instead, we wanted them to focus on designing and implementing high-quality software.”
Asos’s new modular architecture takes a microservices approach, where back-end services such as searches, order processing, customer profiles and inventory management are called by application programming interfaces (APIs) that communicate with separate, -customer-facing applications running on websites and mobile devices. The services operate independently, allowing the retailer to quickly deploy the language, payment options and delivery choices most appropriate for different target markets.
In addition, Asos can easily tailor its front-end services without modifying back-end infrastructure, which enables greater personalisation. The company also introduced mobile apps that include a built-in recommendation engine, and the website will soon have a similar capability.
“In a world where we have 85,000 products on the site and 4,500 products going live each week, we need to make sure that the right subset of those products is in front of our consumers,” comments Strudwick. “Now, the products and content will be more relevant to you as a shopper.”
Future plans include using support for conversational commerce and deeper integration of the company’s e-commerce platform with social media. “Our core demographic is 20-something consumers, and social media is a big part of that world,” says Dave Green, enterprise application architect at Asos. “Some of the things on our roadmap include enhanced social media interactions, for example allowing consumers to choose Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp to receive service updates.”
Asos launched its new cloud platform ahead of its biggest-ever Black Friday sale on 25 November 2016. The high scalability and fast performance boosted sales, peaking at 22 orders per second on Black Friday and 33 per second on the following Cyber Monday – a significant rise from nine orders per second in 2015. Customers also spent more time on the website, and there was an uplift in average basket value.
“All the traffic that we had – and it was more than we ever had before – went through the new Microsoft Azure architecture and it was remarkably trouble-free,” notes Strudwick. “The service tier served 167 million requests in the 24 hours of Black Friday. We maxed at 3,500 requests a second on the product API and had an average response time of 48 milliseconds.”
Now, Asos can run services across 30 Azure data centres, using Azure Traffic Manager, Azure Microservices and the Azure SQL Database to optimise performance and resilience.
“The fast performance, scale-out, and ¬multi-region resiliency, combined with the operational efficiency that this PaaS service provides, keep user data available at all times and ensure continuous service for customers worldwide,” Strudwick says.
Asos expects to offer the same level of service as it expands across the globe, aided by close collaboration between business and technology teams.
“Microservices architecture on Microsoft Azure is really about gaining the flexibility to divert resources to services that bring a competitive edge to the company,” says Strudwick. “We can react to changes in our global customer base. For example, if we expand our marketing spend in the US, we can simultaneously beef up services to support those new consumers. We can introduce new features and ramp up deployment wherever our customers are in the world.”
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