To Replatform or Not to Replatform — That is the Question

For e-commerce, it’s not always a choice between two evils

Dave Anselmi, Director of Product Management, Clustrix

E-commerce merchants need to be agile to respond to the changing expectations and desires of online shoppers. Facing these demands in the midst of managing tremendous growth can be a big effort. Online shopping — particularly mobile — continues to increase in popularity, as indicated by a recent Forrester report projecting a nearly 10 percent CAGR in the space through 2018. E-commerce companies are welcoming this growth with open arms, to be sure, but it also poses challenges.

Challenge number one is — Recognizing there’s a Problem. Merchants with any of the following characteristics should take heed:

  • Are you expecting more customers this holiday season?
  • Did you increase your marketing spend?
  • Did you upgrade and/or add any significant functionality to your mobile channel?
  • Did you make it through last holiday season with crossed fingers?
  • Did you have any site slowdowns or outages last holiday season?
  • Did any of your customers on social media or your site feedback forms complain of site responsiveness?

More traffic and conversions means more chance of slow downs and more chance of site outages. Shoppers have lots of choices to surf away and they won’t wait for slow sites, product disappearing from their cart or frozen pages. Slow downs and outages are devastating to merchants — not just the loss of immediate revenue, but shoppers who leave the site may never come back. Add new shopping options–daily deals, social shopping, flash sales, free shipping, loyalty incentives, and more, and there’s plenty of opportunity for site problems. The price paid for even relatively minor dips in site performance can be steep: an e-commerce site that makes $100,000 per day, for example, stands to lose $2.5 million per year if load times lag by an average of just one second, according to KISSmetrics. The stakes, therefore, are high for ensuring that your e-commerce platform performs at peak at all times.

Challenge number two is — How do you stay agile and handle high growth at the same time? Have you upgraded your infrastructure as far as you can go? Is that working? Is it cost-effective? Questions like these lead to the Big Question: Do you need a different e-commerce platform? That’s a really good question.

Many merchants are running legacy e-commerce platforms. Changing platforms is not easy, cheap or fast, but neither is suffering problems such as:

  • Platform outages
  • Performance lags
  • Scalability difficulties
  • Maintenance issues
  • Lack of omnichannel flexibility
  • Lack of data analytics capabilities

But is there any option to re-platforming?

Some think not. According to Forrester’s 2014 Global eBusiness & Channel Strategy Online Survey, nearly half of e-commerce organizations are either already replatforming — which involves moving an entire site from one platform to another (otherwise known as “rip and replace”) — or are planning to start the process in the next 12–24 months. But, as Peter Sheldon of Forrester cautions “eCommerce doesn’t live in a vacuum. A replatforming initiative cannot happen in isolation.”

Rip-and-replace replatforming is as big a job as it sounds…

As the term itself indicates, a full “rip and replace” replatforming approach is a highly involved process, and comes with its own set of very serious drawbacks:

  1. Replatforming can be extremely time-consuming (many months, if not years) and resource-intensive (millions), requiring input from numerous lines of business.
  2. Replatforming is a huge disruption to both your customers, as well as your internal team. The new site will look differently, behave differently, functionality will be accessed through different navigation, and depending on how much you want to customize, some functionality will often be lost. All of this adds-up to significant barriers of entry, causing customer frustration and internal ‘own-goal’ type errors.
  3. Replatforming may cause data loss. Migrating data from one system to another is always tricky; sure you probably won’t lose catalog entries, but how about all the analytics, buyer patterns and abandoned cart data? Will that easily map to and be retained by the new system?
  4. Replatforming isn’t a “One and Done”. There is no guarantee that merchants won’t have to replatform again in several years as they continue to grow; they may simply be entering into a repeating costly and disruptive rip and replace cycle.

…but is such an extreme solution truly necessary?

If your site is suffering problems, you have to do something. Recent research indicates that shopping cart abandonment is costing U.S. companies $4 Trillion a year. A significant portion of abandonment is due to website performance problems, such as sluggishness and crashes, and these issues are likely to become more frequent as sites experience increased traffic.

Do companies really have to choose between costly, disruptive replatforming, versus loss of customers? Is “rip and replace” the only way to sustain growth?

Another Choice to Replatforming

Fortunately, the answer is no. An e-commerce site is comprised of multiple components, and site performance and uptime are affected differently by each. In many cases, you can greatly extend the life of your existing e-commerce platform, and scale to the demands that vibrant e-commerce growth will place on it, by switching out the underlying relational database. The relational database is the transaction engine for the e-commerce site, and its performance directly affects page load times, adding products to the cart, checking out and other customer-sensitive activities. Choosing a better-performing, scale-out database designed to handle e-commerce workloads, for example, can help organizations handle growth without a platform rip and replace. Why change platforms if you can simply change the relational database that powers it?

So, if re-platforming appears inevitable, evaluating your CDN, caching, hosting and network requirements is just the first step. But once you’ve optimized those, upgrading your relational database to one which massively scales-out can help you avoid the ‘replatforming rat-race’.

If you’re currently weighing the pros and cons of replatforming, you may find it useful to check out the following Clustrix webinar which included guest speaker Lily Varon, a Forrester Research, Inc. Researcher.