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Friday, 15 August 2014 11:20

How Microsoft Azure put the magic and sparkle into Marks and Spencer in a week

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UK clothing and food retailer Marks and Spencer uses Microsoft Azure cloud services to quickly scale major TV and social media campaigns and to restructure the business to cope with the demands of omni-channel retailing and agile development


Like many retailers, December is the most important time of year for 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 programs, Downton Abbey) and social media extensive promotion.


The campaign aimed to reach 97 percent 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 John Pillar, Head of Software Engineering for Mobile, Labs, Retail-IT & Digital Stores at Marks and Spencer. “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.”


Create an omni-channel strategy for the retailer


In addition to the requirement to deliver social media solutions Marks and Spencer (M&S) also had a key objective to turn the M&S web site into its flagship store as well as build an an omni-channel strategy for its stores around the world an in the Uk – the business operates in more than 50 countries, employs around 82,000 people, and has 800 stores in the UK alone.


The IT support for this comes from the 80-person software engineering team in the web 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,” explains Pillar.


When the M&S Marketing Director came to John in October and outlined the Magic & Sparkle campaign, 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.


A matter of weeks to build an Azure solution


John’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—an e-boutique in Amsterdam and in-store kiosks—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.”


The Microsoft Services Premier Support team also played a major role in bringing the Magic & Sparkle campaign to life. “Testing was critical,” says Pillar. “We quickly engaged with Microsoft Services through the Premier Support for Developers programme, where the team helped us make sure that the technology could scale at the levels we required.”


A proof-of-concept site was set up and during testing, the volume of traffic led to a bottleneck. Microsoft Services allocated a section of a data centre in Amsterdam and supplied beta load test software to ensure that the bottleneck was eliminated. “A lot of people worked tirelessly to help us prepare for the campaign; it really was a phenomenal effort from the Microsoft Services team,” says Pillar.


Using Microsoft Azure really paid off


Using Microsoft Azure as the platform for Magic & Sparkle really paid off for M&S. It was a strong cultural fit with the engineering team and helped ensure that the campaign (and cornerstone of the retailer’s 2013 holiday season) was a success. “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—if we had used internal resources, the process would have taken two months,” says Pillar.


The engineering team particularly appreciates the self-service and speed when provisioning Azure components. This makes things quicker and easier when building the solution, while Azure also eliminates concerns about capacity and scale. Because they can use Azure to quickly scale campaigns as needed, engineers have more time to focus on what they really excel at, such as 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.”


Beyond the Magic & Sparkle campaign, M&S uses Azure elsewhere and it is a key factor for the retailer to achieve its omni-channel vision. “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,” says Pillar.

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