Picture the scene: In an English pub back in 2001, a man sharing a pint with a friend wagers £1 that nobody could ever successfully sell “white goods”—appliances such as ovens, fridges, and dishwashers—over the internet.

AO.com logoThe man’s friend, John Roberts, gamely took the bet—and won. He founded Appliances Online, and his company did exactly what it said on the tin, and did it well enough to establish a sizable base of loyal customers. In 2013, the company relaunched as AO.com, which today offers more than 5,000 products, with a range of home computing equipment recently added to the inventory.

As an e-commerce outfit, website performance is key to the company’s success. “We compete not so much on price as on experience and convenience,” says Carl Phillips, AO.com director of systems engineering. “That means we have to ship new features or optimizations as fast as we possibly can.”

Amazing data

As AO.com grew quickly, scalability presented some challenges. “As we matured as an engineering organization, we had a lot of hand-rolled instrumentation that just wasn’t scaling with us,” Carl says.

Updating that instrumentation successfully required keeping closer tabs on performance. While other monitoring tools left Carl unimpressed, New Relic proved useful from day one. “The first time I logged into it, I was just amazed by the richness of the data,” Carl says. “I knew straight away that we’d found what we needed.”

Keeping an eye on the competition

Carl calls New Relic APM “our de facto standard”—a tool AO uses “everywhere.” But what’s even more interesting is how aggressively he and his colleagues put New Relic Synthetics to work at peak times.

“On Black Friday, we use Synthetics to keep an eye on our competitors and whether their sites are up or down,” he explains. “Then we can customize our Google ads to let customers know that while this or that competitor is down, we’re still up. So, it gives us a real competitive advantage.”

That advantage has made it easy for Carl to persuade colleagues across his organization to harness New Relic for their own needs. “I’ve found very few barriers to people using it. I love that I can just give it to business people. I can tell them, ‘Don’t be afraid. You can’t break anything,’ and just let them go and play.”

For Carl, it’s the data-driven equivalent of that old saying: give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, but teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

Risk worth taking

Since relaunching and adding computing equipment to its line of products, AO.com continues to embrace progress. The next step? Heading to the cloud.

“We’re definitely approaching the tipping point where we’ll put our e-commerce platform onto the public cloud,” Carl says. “There’ll be no going back.” The transition, he admits, will involve a steep learning curve.

Any kind of change is a gamble. But, like that £1 wager that got the ball rolling for AO back in 2001, some gambles are worth taking. And with the New Relic Digital Intelligence Platform running behind the scenes, AO.com’s future looks like a safe bet.

To learn more about how Carl and his colleagues harness real-time data to outdo the competition, be sure to read the full AO.com customer case study.


Ali Gerrard is a product marketing manager at New Relic. View posts by .

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