It’s clear from the attractive Net-a-Porter.com offices at the top of the Westfield Shopping Centre in west London, that this is a company with a well defined aesthetic.
Richard Lloyd-Williams, head of group IT for the online fashion retailer, explains that everything they do - from the look of the firm’s web site to the customer ordering experience - is designed to have a wow factor.
That desire to impress people, and make life as convenient as possible, extends to employees, who besides working in a beautiful environment are free to chose whichever operating system they prefer.
“We have Macs, Linux and Windows, and people can decide which they want to work on. The developers were on Linux desktops, but they’re increasingly moving to Macs if they want a laptop. They can use whatever they’re most productive with,” he says.
While comfortable adopting certain progressive technologies or approaches, the company does not leap onto every bandwagon. For example, it has decided against allowing staff to use their own devices.
“For security reasons, we don’t want staff bringing in random devices and connecting them to the network. We will provide whatever device we expect teams to be working on,” explains Lloyd-Williams.
Similarly, the company has not yet adopted cloud services, since it owns and operates its own infrastructure, which still has plenty of life left in it.
“We own all the infrastructure we need so we’re not looking to make use of cloud services just yet. In addition, we would need to work through the implications of having our code based elsewhere,” he says.
Net-a-Porter was founded in June 2000 as a web magazine with an e-commerce site that readers could shop from. “The concept, which saw content and commerce come together, was pioneering at that point,” says Lloyd-Williams.
But the idea had its critics, with many feeling that most shoppers are only comfortable buying luxury fashion if they can look at, touch and feel the items first.
“We got round that by having ultra high-quality photography on the site that lets users zoom in to see individual threads,” he says
As access to broadband around the world has improved, the company has further increased its image resolution and added video to its site, the latter outsourced to multimedia platform provider Brightcove.
The site runs on a Unix-based IBM server, meaning the company can easily and cheaply add more capacity when needed. In fact, the business runs several sites, all of which use the same server, enabling capacity to be assigned to whichever site is experiencing the most traffic.
“We launched [new sites] Outnet in April 2009 and Mr Porter this year. They all run off the same servers, meaning we can easily reallocate servers between businesses.”
Lloyd-Williams says the sites see most traffic on the opening day of the Net-a-Porter annual sale, but adds that the discount fashion site Outnet’s traffic can be particularly spiky and can hit nine orders per second during sales.
“As soon as the Outnet sale starts and we send out marketing emails everyone hits it immediately. We know that if we’re having a popular sale on the Outnet, we can repurpose servers over from Net-a-Porter, so it’s a shared pool and easier to manage.”
Since its conception, Net-a-Porter has tried to be global, to be wherever its customers want it to be. To help this strategy the company outsources its content delivery caching to global content delivery network CDNetworks.
“CDNetworks do our global caching for us so we’re as fast in Venezuela and India as we are in the UK. We ship to about 170 countries. You have people in Caracas who read Vogue, have the money but don’t have the boutiques near them.”