Case study: How Holiday Extras improved customer service by shifting to the cloud

By Danny Palmer
02 Sep 2014 View Comments
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The last thing anyone wants to hear when they're having an enjoyable time on holiday is "No". No, you can't fly from here; no, you can't hire this car. Therefore, the raison d'etre for Holiday Extras is to make organising all those additional vacation needs as simple as possible. 

Unfortunately for head of IT Damien Turner, the inability to say "yes" due to the constraints of an aging infrastructure was beginning to have a negative impact on customer service. 

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"I was getting bored of the IT department being the 'no department'. People would come up with ideas, new technology recommendations and ways of doing things, but it always came down to us saying no. It was becoming problematic," he told Computing.

Problems came to a head when Holiday Extras did tests in preparation for a peak-time television advertising campaign, which was expected to lead to up to 1,900 concurrent users on the company's website in the 15 minutes after each advert. However, Turner admitted that the company's servers simply couldn't cope.

"We tested our infrastructure and we got to about 700 concurrent sessions and we started to see smoke coming out of the machines and lots of red on our display boards," he said. Instead of taking six months to buy new hardware and networking, Holiday Extras started "looking to make the move towards a cloud server provider".

Initially, Turner examined the possibility of using Rackspace, but decided against it as the cloud company didn't offer the flexibility and level of control he wanted. 

Holiday Extras therefore opted for Amazon Web Services (AWS) to host its  infrastructure, because "the AWS ethos and the cost models that go with that made it very attractive", said Turner, who described the installation and maintenance support from Amazon as "brilliant". 

"We could phone them any time of day. Having them on standby was a good thing to have," he continued.

Turner said one of the main advantages of using AWS is the scalability it provides, explaining how, if required, Holiday Extras can almost instantly increase the number of servers running - a useful ability during peak booking times, such as January and late summer - in order to ensure smooth running of the website, while avoiding the need to constantly upgrade hardware.

"With the ability to increase our infrastructure by pressing a button, I don't have to beg for new hardware every year to try and cope with growth and booking spikes we can't always guarantee," he said.

"I can sit there and say 'today is going to be busy, so I'll boost my infrastructure again' and then I can kill it the day after. To have that flexibility is very good."

Thanks to AWS, Holiday Extras can deal with 25,000 unique requests at peak times without the fear that a lack of server capacity will cause the website to collapse. That, Turner explained, brings benefits to both Holiday Extras' customers and relieves pressure on his IT team. 

"It means I don't have to worry about whether I've got tonnes of kit in our communications room. It means we use auto-scaling, so I don't have to capacity-plan anymore. I know the kit will grow as it's needed," he said.

Turner also described how the shift to cloud-based systems has meant his IT team is now able to prioritise other, potentially more beneficial, activities over server maintenance.

"Rather than having my infrastructure guys sitting here, trawling through log files and making sure machines are up-to-date, they look at cool technologies, new ways of working that help them do more. They're not just system admins, they're DevOps now; they code, write scripts," he said, although the switch to this way of working did take some getting used to. 

"One of the hardest things with the move to AWS was getting my tech guys to see that it's no longer a piece of tin that you've named and you can stroke, you don't need to worry about that side. Yes, it's still an instance, it's still a machine, but you don't have to care for it," said Turner.

However, cloud is now so ingrained at Holiday Extras, Turner said he couldn't imagine working in any other way. "Any new service or any new business-critical system we look at now, we always look at cloud first - we look at AWS every single time. We always look to ensure we're going cloud," said Turner.

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