Nisa Retail is a member-owned organisation that helps independent retailers remain competitive in the UK food and beverage markets. Nisa negotiates product pricing, provides a supply chain, and offers sales, marketing, and business development services for its members. Nisa Retail has more than 1000 registered shareholders operating more than 4000 stores. The company has annual sales of £1.58 billion.
Nisa regularly offers deals on a first-served, first-approved basis and uses e-mail to prompt retailers to place an order. The process wasn’t particularly convenient or easy for members who were often busy working on the store floor. The company decided to create a mobile application to make it fast and easy for members to order products without leaving the store floor to use a computer.
Dave Morris, Head of IT at Nisa, explains, “Providing a mobile application would allow more of our retailers to take advantage of time-sensitive opportunities. One of the key benefits of Nisa compared to other suppliers is that we control our distribution and ordering systems online. Our competitors don’t have the same investment in that technology. We wanted to demonstrate that Nisa continues to be an innovative company, which then gives us the opportunity to recruit other retailers to the group.”
Nisa wanted to introduce the mobile application to users ahead of its competitors, but didn’t want to risk disrupting its existing order-capture system (OCS), which generates most of the company’s £1.6 billion in revenue. The OCS tailors Nisa’s product catalogue of more than 24,000 products by geographic location and store type so that each store receives a unique variation of the catalogue. With such a complex system, Nisa wanted to minimise the risk of the new mobile application disrupting the main system.
Why Amazon Web Services
Nisa chose to work with Intechnica, a Consulting Partner with the Amazon Partner Network (APN), because the consultancy had developed Nisa’s online ordering system and understood the complexity of the retail organisation. Dave Horton, Technical Account Manager at Intechnica, explains why Amazon Web Services (AWS) was especially appropriate for Nisa: “The OCS is critical for Nisa’s business and they are wary of doing anything that might jeopardize it. Moreover, the OCS is just one part of Nisa’s overall infrastructure. It’s the front door to other back-end systems and exchanges information with other parts of the system. AWS helps us to create a buffer between the mobile application and Nisa’s existing systems. With AWS, we can be in complete control and create services when we need them.”
Using AWS, Nisa and Intechnica designed a solution connecting the mobile application to Nisa’s infrastructure. The mobile application runs on Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) instances, using Amazon DynamoDB for storage, while the OCS remains on Oracle servers in Nisa’s data center. Incoming orders are stored in Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) so that the information doesn’t need to be written directly into the OCS. Caching is set up so that deals are always current for members, but the call system isn’t overwhelmed with requests. Nisa uses Amazon CloudFront to deliver static content from the catalogue to make the system response feel quicker. The system runs entirely in the EU (Ireland) region. Figure 1 illustrates Nisa’s mobile application running on AWS.
Figure 1. Nisa Retail Mobile Architecture on AWS
Horton estimates that Nisa saved at least three to four months by developing the mobile application on AWS: “The development team frequently have multiple streams of development. The team can create multiple testing environments on AWS quickly, which helped us roll out the mobile application much faster.” Furthermore, Nisa and Intechnica were able to experiment with different approaches to data storage on the AWS Cloud that wouldn’t have been possible with a traditional infrastructure because the investment would be too great.
“We have a very small IT department in relation to other companies of our size,” says Morris. “Implementing this solution was a low-risk opportunity for the company to experiment with cloud solutions. Over time, we want to move to a hosting model and take advantage of cloud technology to improve resiliency for monitoring. Using AWS, we can host our applications on a platform far more extensive than we would want to implement internally.”
Nisa has also used AWS to create an emergency OCS. As Morris explains, “The ordering application is so critical that we can’t live without it for more than a short period of time. We developed a failover system on the AWS platform that is effectively a subset of our ordering system, which allows our retailers to continue to place orders in the event of a failure. For all the right reasons, we’ve had yet to invoke it.”
Half of Nisa’s 1000 members are using the mobile application and Morris sees 70 percent as the maximum likely adoption. “I see AWS as the future for IT at Nisa,” he comments. “Our experience has given us confidence. Everything works as we were told it would, so there is nothing to stop us from fully moving to a cloud-based platform.”