Online retailer Roses Only should by any measure be an ideal candidate for the cloud computing business model.
The company’s website hums along at a fairly predictable pace for most of the year but for the four days leading up to Valentine’s Day, it explodes.
On Monday this week, the day before Valentine’s Day, traffic volume increased 24-fold.
“We expected to get slammed – and yes, we got slammed,” explains Michael Seder, innovations officer at the Roses Only Group.
That kind of peak would usually speak to the supposed benefits of a hybrid cloud computing model – in which an organisation might pay a flat fee for the load baseline for their website and then pay-per-use for those rare days of drastically increased activity.
But Seder, evaluating future hosting options for Roses Only late last year, opted instead for a traditional hosting model. Today we asked him why.
The personal touch
Roses Only has offered e-commerce capabilities since 1999 which, up until this year, was hosted by Datacom.
Though Datacom’s hosting services had proven robust, it couldn't offer Roses Only's IT team visibility into the health of the servers and applications.
Seeking alternatives, Seder was attracted to a monitoring tool, InView, offered by Macquarie Telecom that provides a detailed view of servers and databases.
Curiously, he didn’t choose Macquarie Telecom’s cloud services. Instead he signed with the company for a three-year, standard hosting service.
Seder said he felt cloud computing would be more suitable to content-driven sites, whose revenues often depend on big bursts in demand.
By contrast, Roses Only operates a transactional website and complex data replications across multiple sites. The same system also takes in orders from 40 partner stores (premium florists) across Australia.
The company was more concerned about the site being highly available and always a smooth customer experience.
Efforts spent studying customer behaviour on the website have led to a very high customer conversaion rate; ensuring anybody that comes to the site actually buys products.
But one error could cause the whole business proposition to fall apart, pushing customers to Roses Only's rivals.
“This is an emotional product,” Seder said. “We’re delivering love!"
“And flowers are a perishable product. It’s not enough to say you’ll deliver them on best-effort, it has to happen in the time specified. It can be very stressful to ensure all systems are working perfectly. We have to get customers through the ordering process within a few minutes.
"While there is a lot to this operation – marketing, call centres – operationally, IT is the glue. You just can’t crash.”
So for Seder, what matters is that during those peak four days of the year – in which the company might make over ten percent of its annual revenues – he needs to be able to get help from his hosting partner at a moment’s notice. That’s not usually available in the cloud.
Seder said Macquarie Telecom, for example, spent several months gradually bringing elements of the website across from Datacom, with the help of some external database analysts. Macquarie also made some recommendations to tune application performance of the application, most of which has proven very useful.
A good hosting customer should offer some of the flexibility of cloud models in any case, he said.
In December 2011, Roses Only actually exceeded the available resources on its hosting plan. But rather than suffer a huge penalty, the customer simply worked with the Macquarie Telecom team to increase the monthly spend by a very modest amount, increased server power and boosted the size of the SQL database. That same configuration handled the Valentine’s Day madness without a hitch.
“I guess it depends on your business - but I don’t think the cloud model would work for us,” Seder said. “We need a proper hosting plan. For transactional sites like ours, the key is to handle the traffic. I have seen sites like Catch of the Day go down because their server crashes – you have to wonder whether their hosting partner could have resolved that.
“Mac Tel were a standout. They actually care.”
Seder will instead look to the cloud to consider hosting some back-end servers sitting in an in-house server room he’d like to decommission.