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4/23/2012
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How American Greetings' E-Store Preps For Mother's Day

Take an inside look at how Cardstore.com, acquired by American Greetings, achieved a 100-fold increase in traffic carrying capacity, to pave the way for this year's wave of Mother's Day card orders.

American Greetings wants every mom to receive a customized Mother's Day card in the mail this year, with a photo of someone she knows, a personal message with her name, and a signature so convincing that she doesn't know the signer never touched the card or set foot in a card store.

David Snyder, enterprise architect for AG Interactive, the online services subsidiary of American Greetings, has been working to make such a digital creation possible at Cardstore.com, its online site where visitors design their own cards and order them to be sent electronically or printed and mailed by the postal service.

When Cardstore.com was acquired by American Greetings in 2011, it was a small operation dealing with, at most, dozens of users at a time. Snyder is ready to scale to thousands, or perhaps tens of thousands, of simultaneous users as the Mother's Day rush builds up. It's one of American Greetings' biggest card-selling opportunities of the year, second only to the Christmas season. So he's increased Cardstore.com's online systems' card capacity by 100 times from what they were at the time of acquisition.

But doing so wasn't a layup. American Greetings, for example, didn't promote Cardstore.com for Mother's Day 2011 because "we didn't have a lot of familiarity with the application," said Snyder. He wasn't sure of how much traffic it could support, and Father's Day was looming just a few weeks away.

[ You'd better update your five-year plan. See 4 Ways IT's Role Changing Faster Than Expected. ]

Cardstore.com was not a simple website downloading pages; it was intended to be an easy-to-use site engaged in multiple interactions with each user, often from a single card-editing page. To discover how it worked and gain visibility into its chokepoints and bottlenecks, Snyder used free open source tools, such as Nagios systems monitoring and Ganglia cluster monitoring, along with the Ajax version of DynaTrace, to analyze the application.

DynaTrace is a Compuware application performance analysis tool for Java, JavaScript, and Ajax applications that comes in both free and premium versions. "DynaTrace (the free version) quickly helped us understand its architecture, its plus or minus sides," said Snyder. In less than two weeks of exploration, he realized Cardstore.com would not support the traffic American Greetings hoped to generate.

As many alterations and adjustments as possible were made for Father's Day 2011, but Snyder did more site re-engineering before the year-end holiday season. Upgrading to the paid premium version of DynaTrace, he could see the Java thread count build up, garbage collection slow down site processes, available server memory shrink, and where calls to the SQL Server database system were slowing the application.

"We were able to quickly home in on the bottlenecks and determine root cause," said Snyder. All the bottlenecks were exposed to the development team, which took on greater responsibility for operations, a goal of the DevOps movement, and attacked the chokepoints to engineer in greater data handling capacity.

Snyder formed a scalability team, explicitly dedicated to increasing the application's processing capability 100-fold. The team included himself, two developers, and a few business side representatives.

Compuware does a response time study of major retail sites using its Gomez monitoring service. In the period covering Mother's Day 2011, American Greetings ranked 25th on its list of top 25 retailers, with an initial site response of 4.3 seconds. The scalability's team's work sought to reduce that wait time for the end-of-year holiday season. "We were able to reduce the average time for card previews from 4 seconds to 1 second. Most other transactions saw a 10% to 25% improvement," said Snyder. That improvement would move American Greetings up into the top five retail sites on the Gomez study list.

Adding the card printing and mailing capability, something that hadn't occurred to some online card companies that were focused on electronic cards, proved to be a big attraction for Cardstore.com.

This year's Valentine's Day traffic at the site was 10 times more than last year's. And, having gotten new systems through both Christmas and Valentine's Day holidays, Snyder believes he's ready for Mother's Day. That's still saying something because, in his experience, there tends to be more of a concentrated rush as that day draws near, compared to other holidays.

Thanks to service improvements, tens of thousands of busy children of the Internet-generation may decide to satisfy mom with a digitally created version of a homemade card this May 13. Cards can include personal photos or scanned art, a handwritten signature, and a personal note customized with various colors and typefaces.

Gaining visibility into his website application so that he didn't find bottlenecks through bad experience was key to Cardstore.com's preparation. "We think we've achieved our 100-times scalability goal. We're in excellent shape for Mother's Day," predicted Snyder.

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