Office Depot turns to New Relic to help pivot to devops

Office Depot, the mega-retailer of office goods and the owner of the long-standing Viking Direct brand, has suffered a downward trend in its recent financials as sales continue to drop. One area where it's seeing an uptick however is across its various ecommerce channels - bearing the fruits of a concerted effort to digitise over the past few years.

Tamlin Magee Oct 11th 2018
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Office Depot, the mega-retailer of office goods and the owner of the long-standing Viking Direct brand, has suffered a downward trend in its recent financials as sales continue to drop. One area where it's seeing an uptick however is across its various ecommerce channels - bearing the fruits of a concerted effort to digitise over the past few years.

Head of operations and devops at Office Depot, Scott Dunbar, explained to Computerworld UK during New Relic's Future Stack event at Kings Place last week that the company, with good buy-in from leadership, decided to practically start from scratch to update its capabilities from the old legacy model.

"We were very much mode one [in Gartner's bimodal IT concept], with a massively ageing technology estate," says Dunbar. "It was very 'waterfall', mostly contract outsourced, everything you don't want in an IT agile organisation. Tons of shadow IT. A real mess - and of course coupled with the fact that it's a very competitive market, although there's nothing sexy about office supplies you have lots of people competing with us."

The company calculated that it would be too difficult to grow a devops culture organically within the organisation, so "why not build it new," in Dunbar's words.

Office Depot set about creating an innovation centre in Milton Keynes to use as a greenfield site for the new devops practices, where it could build a more agile culture with new hires right from the start.

This allowed the company to bring that growth to its ecommerce offerings across the Office Depot and Viking brands, which saw a "massive re-platforming" of the 24 dedicated websites that were running on a legacy estate. There were also "many other web portals of various flavours" being migrated to the new platform, running on SAP Hybrid cloud.

The business decision to build new infrastructure means it's now running a complete infrastructure as code practice, making them heavy Chef users, and practising a software development lifecycle in infrastructure as well as applications.

"None of my team ever have to log on to production to enact change, our application development lifecycle if very robust, it's all CI/CD - we can deploy on demand... zero downtime deployments during the day," he adds.

None of that is of value unless the company can measure and deliver value though. This is where New Relic comes in. About three years ago, as the retailer was building out its shiny new IT capability, it signed up with New Relic for the full monitoring suite (minus mobile), making it a key component of all of its devops tooling.

"The QA organisation, which we obviously support very heavily, are massive users of New Relic. We of course leverage that for all of our production measurements and KPIs," he adds. "It's the bread and butter of what we do around making decisions when it comes to our site performance, site availability, problem identification, etc."

Initially the business also looked at Dynatrace, but New Relic won out on cost.

"Dynatrace has very similar offerings outside of the APM space," says Dunbar. Where New Relic stands out is the ability to get that 'single pane of glass' view, according to Dunbar.

The retailer also claims to have very few pain points. New Relic recently rolled out a fix for the business to support [Apache] Solr 7.1, which Office Depot had identified as having a memory leak.

"The support has been pretty proactive in getting back to us," Dunbar says. "There was one example in the past where we had some concerns over the festive period, and it was quite difficult to get in touch with anyone to help us identify whether New Relic was the cause of that problem, but other than that it's been very plain sailing.

"I am particularly impressed with the support organisation. When I have some challenges around getting the exact data I want, leveraging NRQL [New Relic Query Language], it's pretty flexible but it's also not very complicated.... so when I'm after a complicated query I reach out to New Relic support and they've helped me get exactly what I need out of them."

In terms of metrics, Office Depot found that it had gained a new understanding of its ecommerce platform because of all the data that it could pull from New Relic to paint a picture of the full customer journey. The company can now pinpoint when a single customer had a problem during that checkout process, or understand outliers in cart transaction times.

"Think about the effort that it takes to generate your cart - someone's adding maybe eighty to 200 of those products into a single cart, the amount of data involved is massive," says Dunbar. "So New Relic has enabled us to really drill down into cart transaction process, so many times we have identified bottlenecks, not just in the backend calls but within the front end, the way we calculate price, New Relic has been instrumental to that," he said.

"Not to put people down but the legacy estate doesn't have that capability - sometimes I wonder how many problems we still have on that legacy estate that we have never been able to measure, or able to work on, because we don't have the data to tell us that it is there," Dunbar added.

Aside from New Relic the supplier is also beginning to use Kubernetes on Openshift. By the end of the year it is planning on having a middleware application created with Mule ESB, which will be running on Openshift PaaS. Dunbar is keen to explore how New Relic can help to measure that application and the containers with that stack.

"It's actually quite easy to containerise, build and deploy, but it's not very easy to measure," Dunbar says. "To make sure you don't have bottlenecks within the microservices we're building, and that sort of thing. So that'll be where infrastructure in particular and APM comes in and helps us."