December is the most important month of the year for UK retailer Marks and Spencer (M&S), and its advertising campaigns are the cornerstone of its holiday strategy.
When its 2013 primetime Christmas TV ad campaign encouraged people to visit a dedicated website, it was vital it could cope with the spike in traffic.
The retailer created a website using Microsoft Azure to cope with the potentially high traffic, in addition to saving on the expense of physical servers and internal IT resource.
M&S was founded in 1884 and is regarded as one of the UK’s most popular retailers. It has a presence in more than 50 countries, employs around 82,000 people, and has 800 stores in the UK alone.
As e-commerce continues to transform the retail industry, M&S has set out to position its website as its flagship store within an omnichannel strategy.
The IT support for this comes from an 80-person software engineering team in its dot-com development division.
“We are aiming to provide our customers with the ability to purchase products at any time, wherever they are and using whatever device they choose,” says John Pillar, head of software engineering for mobile, labs, retail IT and digital stores at M&S.
The 2013 holiday season featured a major multichannel marketing campaign called Magic & Sparkle, which drove consumers to the M&S website and encouraged them to vote on the name of a loveable dog which featured in the campaign.
This included a primetime TV ad campaign – including a slot in one of the UK’s most viewed programmes, Downton Abbey – and social-media extensive promotion.
The campaign aimed to reach 97% of the UK adult population over the holiday period, interacting with each person at least three times.
“We had no idea exactly when these interactions would take place, so the whole site design had to be elastic and able to scale to cope with the potentially huge volumes of traffic,” says Pillar. “M&S is a brand that relies on trust, and if the additional traffic had slowed the e-commerce site and made it hard for consumers to purchase products, that would have been unacceptable.”
When M&S’s marketing director outlined the campaign to Pillar in October 2013, the software engineering team had to move quickly. It was decided early in the process that a cloud platform was the only way forward.
“The culture in my team is similar to that of a start-up in terms of speed, agile and innovation, and we absolutely wanted a platform to reflect that,” says Pillar.
Pillar’s team had previously worked with Microsoft Azure, a cloud platform that provides on-demand compute, storage, content delivery, and networking capabilities from Microsoft data centres in other areas of the business, so he was familiar with its capabilities.
“We had a matter of weeks to get the Magic & Sparkle website up and running, and knew that Microsoft Azure would provide us with the speed, scale, and elasticity that such an important campaign required,” says Pillar. “By using Azure, we could have the site up in hours if needed.
“If we engaged with our internal infrastructure team, it would take days just to build the server, so in terms of work hours, using Azure is invaluable.
M&S engaged with Microsoft Services through its developer support programme to helped the team make sure the technology could scale at the levels its required.
A proof-of-concept site was set up and, when the volume of traffic led to a bottleneck, Microsoft Services allocated a section of a data centre in Amsterdam to supply beta load test software to ensure it was eliminated.
“The biggest endorsement of Azure is that we have used it again for campaigns of a similar nature – for Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and many more holidays,” says Pillar. “We know that if a campaign goes viral and the traffic goes crazy, Azure will scale to whatever levels we need.”
Its decision to deploy a cloud-based platform meant that M&S made substantial cost savings on the infrastructure for Magic & Sparkle.
There was no need to engage with its internal infrastructure teams or request that they spend valuable time preparing M&S’s own infrastructure.
“The full site was up and running in one week,” Pillar says. “If we had used internal resources, the process would have taken two months.”
According to Pillar, the engineering team particularly appreciated the self-service and speed when provisioning Azure components, while the solution also eliminated concerns about capacity and scale – giving engineers more time to focus on writing code.
“Campaigns like Magic & Sparkle are very resource intensive and using Azure for short-term projects is extremely affordable,” says Pillar. “In terms of team productivity, Azure provides a massive boost for M&S.
“Azure has grown with us as we have grown, and it is a perfect fit for M&S as we look to innovate in our use of technology.”