Michael Bleby Reporter

Michael writes on emerging markets, architecture and engineering. He has served as a correspondent in Tokyo, London and Johannesburg and has written for Reuters, the Financial Times, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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Scale up, work away through cloud computing

Published 29 November 2012 05:15, Updated 29 November 2012 07:01

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In June, Ruslan Kogan declared war on Internet Explorer 7. He warned shoppers using the browser on his retail site kogan.com they would be charged an extra 6.8 per cent – 0.1 per cent for every month that had elapsed since the browser’s launch in 2006 – to encourage them to upgrade from the “antique” version that was a constant source of frustration to web developers.

The tactic worked well for the publicity loving Kogan – and it struck a chord globally with web developers who hated IE7 and beat a path to Kogan’s site to see the announcement. The tactic became a trending topic on Twitter. Web traffic went through the roof.

“There was a big spike,” says Kogan’s IT director Goran Stefkovski. “I can’t remember if it doubled or tripled.”

What is good for publicity is stressful for the back end however, and the spike, which lasted over a two-day period, forced the company to expand server capacity in a hurry. An online electronics retailer such as Kogan gets seasonal spikes in traffic at busy times. Having a maverick and outspoken figurehead also causes spikes.

With cloud-based capacity to hand, however, both scenarios are easier to manage. The company can pull in extra server power at short notice to handle the rush.

“If you had a really strong and capable server, it may have handled that OK,” Stefkovski says. “But the problem is as soon as that got close to the top of resources, you’re in trouble. You’ve got nowhere to go. In a situation where you’ve got cloud, it’s going to take 30 minutes to open up a few more servers – or even less – you’ve got room to grow scale out your components.

“On your own physical machine, you might have much more capacity than one cloud server but when it reaches its limit, that’s when you get into trouble.”

Kogan.com has a hybrid cloud set-up with provider Rackspace, giving it a dedicated system to run the company’s data store along with flexible access to data-processing servers that can be scaled up or down according to traffic. Such an arrangement is unusual but will become more widespread, Stefkovski says.

At a time of increasing complexity of e-commerce, only the very largest of companies will host their own hardware and pay for continual monitoring and maintenance. For all other companies, outsourcing is a better option. In Kogan’s case, outsourcing allows it to concentrate on its core business.

“There are so many levels of software management involved in this hosting thing,” Stefkovski says. “Web pages to people – that’s our core, we don’t want to go deeper.”

While Stefkovski is a fan of cloud-based services, he realises that they don’t yet provide all the answers. He says he would like to have infrastructure endpoints throughout the world that are localised to visitors.

“All this information travels over wires and cables,” he says. “The further away that is, the longer it’s going to take. The time we’re talking is barely noticeable but when you’re downloading images and things that tally up to a bigger file size that localisation thing comes into play.”

There are ways to get around this problem, but at this stage, they would be costly.

“We could, if we wanted, work with Rackspace and set up a full localised scheme,” Stefkovski says. “But the development work to do that isn’t necessarily going to give us the benefit. It’s not worth it at this stage.”

But for now, the cloud is great for managing the spikes in traffic that come – as they did last month, when Kogan himself delivered the company’s millionth item on Channel Nine’s A Current Affair program. That brought a similar rush of traffic to the site as the IE7 stunt, but with one major difference, Stefkovski says.

“We had less time to do it and had to do it a lot faster,” he says.

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