Launch a new site in 3.5 weeks with Amazon

Getting started quick is one of the reasons that people adopted cloud, and that is why Amazon Web Services (AWS) is so popular. But people often overlook the fact that the retail part of Amazon is also amazing. If your project involves supply chain, you can also leverage Amazon retail to get up and running quickly.

We recently launched a wellness pilot project at Accenture where we leveraged both Amazon retail and Amazon web services. The Steptacular pilot is designed to encourage Accenture US employees to lead a healthy lifestyle. We all had our new year resolutions, but we always procrastinate, and we never exercise as much as we should. Why? Because there is a lack of motivation and engagement. The Steptacular pilot uses a pedometer to track a participant’s physical activity, then it leverages concepts in Gamification, uses social incentive (peer pressure) and monetary incentive to constantly engage participants. I will talk about the pilot and its results in details in a future post, but in this post, let me share how we are able to launch within 3.5 weeks, the key capabilities we leveraged from Amazon and some lessons we learned from this experience.

Supply chain side

The Steptacular pilot requires participants to carry a pedometer to track their physical activity. This is the first step of increasing engagement — using technology to alleviate the hassle of manual (and inaccurate) entry. We quickly locked into the Omron HJ-720 model because it is low cost and it has a USB connector so that we can automate the step upload process.

We got in touch with Omron. The guys at Omron are super nice. Once they learned what we are trying to do, they immediately approved us as a reseller. That means we can buy pedometer at the wholesale price. Unfortunately, we still have to figure out how we can get the devices into our participants’ hands. Accenture is a distributed organization with 42 offices in the US alone. To make the matter worse, many consultants work from client sites, so it is not feasible to distribute in person. We seriously considered three options:

  1. Ask our participants to order directly from Amazon. This is the solution we chose in the end, after connecting with the Amazon buyer in charge of the Omron pedometer and being assured that they will have no problem handling the volume. It turns out that this not only saves us a significant amount of shipping hassle, but it is also very cost effective for our participants.
  2. Be a vendor ourselves and uses Amazon for supply chain. Although I did not know about it before, I am pleasantly surprised to learn about the Fulfillment by Amazon capability. This is Amazon’s cloud for supply chain. Like a cloud, this is provided as a service — you store your merchandise in Amazon’s warehouse, and they handle the inventory and shipping. Also, like a cloud, it is pay per use with no long term commitment. Although equally good at reducing hassle for us, we did not find that we can save cost. Amazon retail is so efficient and has such a small margin that we realize we cannot compete even though we are happy with a 0% margin and even though we (supposedly) pay for the same wholesale price.
  3. Ship and manage by ourselves. The only way we could be cheaper is if we manage the supply chain and shipping logistics ourselves, and of course, this is assuming that we work for free. However, the amount of work is huge, and none of us wants to lick envelope for a few weeks, definitely not for free.

The pilot officially launched on Mar. 29th. Besides Amazon itself, another Amazon affiliate, J&R music, also sells the same pedometer on Amazon’s website. Within a few minutes, our participants were able to totally drain J&R’s stock. However, Amazon remained in stock for the whole duration. Within a week, they sold roughly 3,000 pedometers pedometers. I am sure J&R is still mystified by the sudden surge in demand. If you are from J&R, my apologies for not giving adequate warning ahead and kudos to you for not overcommitting your stock like many TouchPad vendors did recently (I am one of those burned by OnSale).

In addition to managing device distribution, we also have to worry about how to subsidize our participants. Our sponsors agreed to subsidize each pedometer by $10 to ease the adoption, but we could not just write each participant a $10 check — that is too much work. Again, Amazon came to the rescue. There are two options. One is that Amazon could generate a bunch of one-time-use $10 discount code which is specifically tied to the pedometer product, then, based on how many are redeemed, Amazon could bill us for the total cost. The other option is that we could buy a bunch of $10 gift cards in bulk and distribute to our participants electronically. We ultimately chose the gift card option for its flexibility and also for the fact that it is not considered a discount so that the device would still cost more than $25 for our participants to qualify for super saver shipping. Looking back, I do regret choosing the gift card option, because managing squatters turns out to be a big hassle, but that is not Amazon’s fault, it is just human nature.

Technology platform side

It is a no-brainer to use Amazon to leverage its scaling capabilities, especially for a short-term quick project like ours. One key thing we learned from this experience is that you should only use what you need. Amazon web services offer a wide range of services, all designed for scale, so it is likely that you will find a service that serves your need.

Take for example the email service Amazon provides. Initially, we used Gmail for sending out signup confirmations and email notifications. During the initial scaling trial, we soon hit Gmail’s limit on how fast we can send emails. Once realizing the problem, we quickly switched to Amazon SES (Simple Email Service). There is an initial cap on how many we can send, but it only took a couple of emails for us to lift the limit. With a couple of hours of coding and testing, we all of a sudden can send thousands of emails at once.

In addition to SES, we also leveraged AWS’ CloudWatch service to enable us to closely monitor and be alerted of system failures. Best of all, it all comes for free without any development effort from our side.

Even though Amazon web services offer a large array of services, you should only choose what you absolutely need. In other words, do not over engineer. Let us taking auto scaling as an example. If you host a website in Amazon, it is natural to think about putting in an auto-scaling solution, just in case to handle the unexpected. Amazon has its auto scaling solution, and we, at the Accenture labs, have even developed an auto-scaling solution called WebScalar in the past. If you are Netflix, it makes absolute sense to do so because your traffic is huge and it fluctuates widely. But if you are smaller, you may not need to scale beyond a single instance. If you do not need it, it is extra complexity that you do not want to deal with especially when you want to launch quick. We estimated that we will have around 4,000 participants, and when we did a quick profiling, we figured that a standard extra-large instance in Amazon would be adequate to handle the load. Sure enough, even though the website experienced a slow down for a short period of time during launch, it remains adequate to handle the traffic for the whole duration of the pilot.

We also learned a lesson on fault tolerance — really think through your backup solution. Steptacular survived two large-scale failures in the US East data center. We enjoyed peace of mind partly because we are lucky, partly because we have a plan. Steptacular uses an instance-store instance (instead of an EBS instance). We made the choice mainly for performance reasons — we want to free up the network bandwidth and leverage the local hard disk bandwidth. This turns out to have saved us from the first failure in Apr. which is caused by EBS blocks failure. Even though we cannot count on EBS for persistency, we build in our own solution. Most static content on the instance is bundled into a Amazon Machine Image (AMI). There are two pieces of less static content (the content that changes often) stored on the instance: the website logic and the steps database. The website logic is stored in a Subversion repository and the database is synced to another database running outside of the US East data center. This architecture allows us to be back up and running quickly, by first launching our AMI, then check out website code from repository and lastly dump and reload the database from the mirror. Even though we did not have to initiate this backup procedure, it is good to have the peace of mind knowing your data is safe.

Thanks to Amazon, both Amazon retail and Amazon web services, we are able to pull off the pilot in 3.5 weeks. More importantly, the pilot itself has collected some interesting results on how we can motivate people to exercise more. But I will leave that to a future post after we have a chance to dig deep into the data.

Acknowledgments

Launching Steptacular in 3.5 weeks would not have been possible without the help of many people. We would like to especially thank the following folks:

  • Jim Li from Omron for providing both hardware, software and logistics support
  • Jeff Barr from Amazon for connecting us with the right folks at Amazon retail
  • James Hamilton from Amazon for increasing our email limit on the spot
  • Charles Allen from Amazon for getting us the gift codes quickly
  • Tiffany Morley and Helen Shen from Amazon for managing the inventory so that the pedometer miraculously stayed in stock despite the huge demand

Last but not least, big kudos to the Steptacular team, which includes several Stanford students, who worked really hard even through the finals week to get the pilot up and running. They are one of the best team I proudly have ever worked with.

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