Waterstones authors new DevOps playbook with New Relic monitoring tools


Waterstones, Britain’s largest bookshop chain, is getting the visibility it needs to roll out frequent, small improvements to its website without negatively impacting the customer experience.

Oliver White
Oliver White

Five years ago, Britain’s largest bookshop chain Waterstones was on the brink of collapse – but after substantial investment in its shops and website infrastructure, it’s starting to look like this multichannel retail story might still have a happy ending.

The year ending 27 April 2015 (the most recent for which figures are available) saw Waterstones’ first rise in revenues under the ownership of Alexander Mamut, who bought the ailing business from HMV back in 2011.

Sales may have crept up just 1 percent to £392.4 million, but this represented an important improvement over the previous year, which saw them drop by 6 percent. Moreover, the company posted operating income of £5.4 million, compared to losses of £3.8 million a year earlier.

Much has changed in book retailing over the half decade since Waterstones changed hands. Online bookseller Amazon has begun to open physical stores. The British public seems to have rekindled its passion for the printed word, with sales of physical books up in 2015 for the first time in four years, while digital sales fell for the first time, according to figures from The Publishers Association.

And Waterstones’ customers now have a range of different ways to shop: for example, going online to check their local store has the book they want in stock or, alternatively, buying a book on the company’s website at the online price and then picking it up at their local bricks-and-mortar branch.

This style of multichannel retailing, coupled with the need to respond at lightning-fast speed to the public’s ravenous appetite to get their hands on the latest releases (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, anyone?), have prompted a wholesale rethink of the company’s approach to online sales, according to head of web development, Oliver White.

He was brought in to the company on a part-time basis around two years ago, after the company’s e-commerce platform was shifted from and IBM Websphere-based system to a new open source one. Since then, he’s moved into a full-time role, focusing on building up the team with the new skills that it needs to continue building out that platform and adopting an Agile/DevOps approach to development. Says White:

We’re a small team, around seven people, but I like to think we punch well above our weight in terms of what we look after. I reckon a lot of businesses of a similar size would have a team four or five times the size of ours.

Crucial to that team achieving what it does, he continues, is having the right approach to rolling out new website features and functions and the right tools to measuring their impact on overall performance and customer experience. The Waterstones e-commerce platform is based on physical servers hosted on the company’s behalf by Pier1, so his team has to focus on getting the very most of that infrastructure and the service levels it provides.

Turning the page

With that in mind, White has introduced New Relic’s monitoring products at Waterstones, which he had already used at a previous employer. These provide real-time visibility into the hosted infrastructure, as well as application monitoring tools, so that Waterstones can correlate performance metrics and configuration changes to the infrastructure. With the insight this gives, the team can roll out changes more frequently using DevOps principles and quickly troubleshoot any problems that arise, says White:

Even with the free trial downloaded from the New Relic website, I could see straight away that it would be useful to us. I showed the application monitoring tools to our team and it immediately became their new best toy, because it saved time. Even some of the simplest features saved time in terms of debugging, because we can see what’s important to fix, how it actually relates to the customer journey, how these bugs occur in the first place. Prioritization is really important, because you can see how many people these bugs are affecting and how to prioritize resources to deal with issues.

When you’ve got different parts of the business giving their input, it sometimes becomes very murky when it comes to deciding what to fix first. Everybody has their own agenda. Everyone wants what’s best for the customer, but everyone views the customer from a different perspective. So having all these tools means we can realistically see what issues are actually affecting the customer’s experience of the website and get them fixed.

As head of development, White says, what matters to him is that every new software release has a positive impact on customer experience. The company has built its own in-house deployment system and, thanks to DevOps practices, is now in the position of rolling out up to a dozen new releases a day. In the past, a single release might take up to two weeks, with everyone working overtime and really pushing to get a build together in time to meet the deadline:

Today, when we roll out a new release, we can actually flag on New Relic the time of this new deployment, and the tools can start gathering data from that point. In that way, we get a snapshot of performance from one release and can compare it to previous releases. It’s all well and good being able to measure in real time, but the ability to compare, on paper, improvement from one software release to another is hugely powerful – and because we’re doing very frequent, very small releases, we’re able to reduce the amount of time spent on debugging if one release proves detrimental to website performance. We can just roll back that one small change and it’s made the whole process very, very smooth.

The DevOps principle of continuous deployment is one that White says he’s been mulling over for many years, but this is the first time he’s really had the visibility he needed to put into practice in a way that has really transformed working practices:

Ultimately, Waterstones isn’t a technology company, we’re booksellers. We’re all booksellers at heart here, and having the right tools in place means we can all focus on what we do best – and that’s finding the best ways to sell as many books as possible.

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Image credit - Waterstones