Grid Platform Enables On-Demand e-Commerce

By By Derrick Harris, Editor

April 21, 2008

Everyone knows the Web has come a long way since its early days, and one of the most changed areas has to be e-commerce. A landscape once dominated by boutique, Web-only shops, sparsely populated with shoppers, is now home to every major retailer and corporation on the planet. Selling goods on the Web has become huge business.

Many companies’ fortes, however, are in brick and mortar storefronts. For others, the only selling they have done is wholesale to retailers; selling direct to end-customers just wasn’t an option. They would love to take advantage of the additional sales channels the Web opens up, but time and money spent building a e-commerce applications, as well as the high-availability, highly scalable environment needed to run them, is time and money that could be spent on core business processes. If only there was somebody to handle the legwork of building, managing and housing such an application …

For big companies that need enterprise-class e-commerce applications, that somebody is Demandware. Based in Woburn, Mass., Demandware offers an on-demand e-commerce application that customers use to service their consumer-facing needs.  According to Vice President of Engineering and Technology Wayne Whitcomb, the company’s platform is like licensed enterprise software that customers can customize, extend and integrate as they wish, but without the burdens of development or delivery via computing resources.

As opposed to the old ASP model of hosting applications, though, where everything was individually managed and quarantined, Whitcomb says Demandware’s software-as-a-service (SaaS) platform allows the company to deliver new features and innovations “all the time, to all customers.” Being able to roll out these updates across the customer board is very important, too, because Demandware’s customers are large retail brands facing substantial competitive pressures. The demands of being a real-time business, finicky customers trends, aggressive competition and the need to drive customer loyalty via the Web site make for a situation where retailers not only need a high-performance, highly available solution, but also one that is constantly evolving.

“Normally in an enterprise application, for reliability, security and stability, you’d want to minimize change as much as possible,” says Whitcomb. “However, the [e-commerce] market demand and consumer demands are exactly opposite that. They push for frequent change, innovation and dealing with unpredictable consumer traffic at the same time.”

Perhaps this necessary combination of both application and platform innovation is the reason Whitcomb says Demandware has little to no competition in the high-end e-commerce market. SaaS options like Amazon WebStore and eBay ProStores work for the low end, he noted, but just are not designed to handle larger companies’ needs in terms of branding, customer experience and scale.

To ensure it can deliver adequate capacity, scalability, reliability and security, Demandware chose to build a closely coupled grid computing delivery platform for its application. The platform is comprised of a series of PODs (points of delivery), which Whitcomb explains as e-commerce appliances with packaged compute capacity that Demandware deploys to tier 1 datacenters globally. The company directly manages those PODs, as well as the customer environment, sandbox development environments, integrated test environments, pre-production staging and production environments, all of which are isolated from one another within the Demandware grid. “To effectively manage all of those environments requires a lot of automation and a lot of flexibility of the delivery platform that really can only be provided through grid computing techniques,” Whitcomb says.

As for the nuts and bolts of the grid, Whitcomb says blades, each of one of which is imparted with a persona, handle the computing. Each blade’s persona determines how it will participate in the grid, and the persona model allows Demandware to envision how customer environments will utilize that capacity. Customer environments can be flexed to meet significant changes in demand (e.g, 10:1) in a matter of minutes, said Whitcomb. Computing resources within the grid are pooled using Demandware’s internally developed virtualization software.

A flexible, dedicated grid delivery platform is necessary, says Whitcomb, because the alternatives are either economically or pragmatically infeasible. Whereas Demandware can invest heavily in research and development of the platform because the company derives value from the grid across its customer base, it would be difficult for those customers to make such investments individually.

Among Demandware’s most interesting customers, in terms of use, is Bare Escentuals. A purveyor of “healthy” makeup, Bare Escentuals does a lot of marketing through print, electronic media and television (in the form of infomercials). Thanks in large part to the latter, Whitcomb says Bare Escentuals’ Web traffic varies unpredictably and at factors as high as 10x. Bare Escentuals also populates its site with a fair amount of rich media, a practice that is facilitated through Demandware’s use of Akamai’s content distribution technology.

Apparel company Timberland also utilizes Demandware to manage sites across several geographies and lines of business, all without needing to toil with infrastructure or application development. Whitcomb is especially proud that HP, a company with “all the resources in the world,” also sees tremendous value in using Demandware. Other customers include Playmobil, Sally Beauty Supply, Gardener’s Supply Co. and Playboy.com.

Although he believes that all applications that share core or common requirements will eventually find their ways into an on-demand delivery model, Whitcomb acknowledges that such models do bring with them a certain degree of difficulty for the provider. These challenges include integration with legacy backend systems and third-party services, letting customers have control over the elements they want to control, and keeping the application current and reliable.

“The dimensions of that make it a real challenge to serve the enterprise,” says Whitcomb. “The enterprises certainly want it — they’re crying for it — and I think it’s up to the market to deliver against those strong needs. Demandware proves that, at least in the e-commerce market, it can be done.”

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