UK Price Comparison Leader Goes “Reactive” To Fuel Next Phase Of Growth
Category Leader that Embraces the “Startup Mentality”
MoneySuperMarket Group is the holding company behind three of the UK’s most popular comparison shopping sites. Despite a very mature business with impressive YOY growth of 10% and revenues reaching £248.1m ($375.2m) in 2014, the company invests more than £16 million into building new websites and systems each year.
This re-investment in technology is part of the company’s embrace of the “startup mentality.” Every week new price comparison sites emerge, and for MoneySuperMarket Group, competitive edge is tied directly to the ability to be responsive, create and deploy new features and products quickly, and for its application infrastructure to always be one step ahead of the rate of business change. The Group’s ongoing investment in technology has enabled the business to re-platform a number of its core channels and will allow it to make future changes to the customer proposition in a more agile manner.
At our rate of innovation, there's constant tweaking—constant changes that occur. Previously those changes would take 2-3 weeks to change the tech stack and propagate through. With a Reactive application stack, we can turn around changes in 2-3 days. There are huge revenue benefits in reacting faster to changes that our customers and partners want.Paul DickinsonHead of Group Platform and Innovation at MoneySuperMarket
How Business Drivers Led to a Re-Platforming Effort to Become “Reactive”
In 2014, Paul Dickinson, Head of Group Platform and Innovation at MoneySuperMarket Group, was tasked to re-evaluate the software stack that underpins the company’s core “aggregation” capabilities, and to define the ideal architecture that could future-proof the company for the rate of innovation demanded by the business. For MoneySuperMarket, getting more Reactive meant:
- Increasing Developer Velocity - increasing the rate at which new features, partnership integrations and other code is shipped.
- Achieving a “Cloud-First” Approach - adopting an architecture that takes advantage of the elasticity and cost effectiveness of the cloud.
- Outpacing Startups in the Space - giving developers the best platform to maintain a higher rate of innovation than newcomers to the price comparison market.
- Driving Partnerships / Revenues - achieving an infrastructure that could scale up to the most ambitious global expansion plans on the company's horizon.
Replatforming a Very Successful Travel Price Comparison Site, Mid-Flight
Dickinson's first target for the replatforming effort was the already massively popular TravelSuperMarket service, a travel industry price comparison site that helps customers “get away for less” with package holidays, city breaks, flights, hotels and auto rental. The service allows price comparisons across more than 650 airlines and 200,000 hotels in a matter of seconds.
The back-end of TravelSuperMarket is heavily reliant on what the company refers to as "aggregation" - when a user fills out a form to fly from LHR to JFK, aggregation is the process of going out to partner APIs, pulling data back over HTTP, normalizing that data, and then pulling it back into the browser. In addition to re-platforming to support common aggregation and supporting business logic scenarios, the team's move to Reactive was tied to achieving a better baseline for creation of new features on the user facing application.
The legacy stack's constraints in meeting these new requirements included:
- Need for more modern patterns - the need for better approaches to achieve non-blocking, async, bulkheading and other popular Reactive system characteristics.
- Overly tied to specific servers - the stack was not well suited to flexing capacity in a cloud environment, and scaling elastically.
- Cost of ownership - in a world where TravelSuperMarket's site traffic is very spikey (can increase 300-400% in a short period of time), the platform financially penalized the company for bursting capacity.
- Shift to Open Source - The company was also interested to move away from .Net and C#, to an Open Source stack designed for a cloud environment.
From POC to Business Results
A proof of concept was built within 6 weeks using scalable squads of cross functional Cake Solutions engineers that had the autonomy to work on each part of the deliverables for the project. The proof of concept was never considered ‘throw-away’ code and acted as a thin slice of the most complex part of the project. By adopting this approach, the Java and Akka system was proven and its full power for being a reactive and scalable stack was demonstrated.
Within five months, a minimum viable product was created. This had all the critical features required—including infrastructure, performance monitoring and integration with internal systems.
Using Akka and Play, we got a lot of the Reactive patterns for free. Non-blocking, async, the bulkheading—as our adoption of those Reactive concepts grew, being able to grow and scale as a business became more straightforward.Sulaiman Rafiq Technical Architect at MoneySuperMarket.com
- Top-line revenue growth - TravelSupermarket.com’s revenues are up 28% due to ongoing investment in technology
- From weeks to days on stack changes - it used to take 2-3 weeks for engineering changes at TravelSuperMarket to propagate; today it takes 2-3 days. This 700% productivity increase positively affects every aspect of feature creation through partner integration efforts, from starting a "story" to deploying to live.
- New product creation accelerated - as MoneySuperMarket creates new business "channels" the team estimates it's about twice as fast, reducing the time for channel onboarding from 6-7 months to 3-4 months (a 50% improvement).
- No more capacity planning - where in the past, advertising campaigns and the ensuing web traffic would require a lot of capacity planning, TravelSuperMarket's new stack allows new viral campaigns to be launched with much less thought up-front about the implications of spikes in traffic.
Read the Tech Republic article How one company improved developer productivity by 700% with reactive programming.
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