Blog Post - Nick Harry, Aug 12 2020

The tried and tested commerce case for HCL V9

The tried and tested commerce case for HCL V9

We all know how much modern businesses have come to rely on technology. But the fact that the business side and the IT side of any organisation don’t always speak the same language probably doesn’t need any introduction.

Every now and again, a development will be made in technology that has the IT crowd very excited. But to their dismay, they find putting together a convincing business case for their company to embrace the new innovation difficult - at least in terms that are traditionally guaranteed to get the purse holders in any business listening.

This was the situation when version 9 of HCL Commerce was released in December 2017. This marked a major turning point in the history of the popular platform formerly known as WebSphere Commerce. For the first time, HCL abandoned the old ‘monolithic’ approach to commerce platform architecture, choosing instead a much more agile, scalable build based on containerisation.

Wunderman Thompson Commerce has a long history working with HCL/WebSphere Commerce stretching back 18 years. We were excited by what the switch to an updated form of software architecture would mean to our clients. But straight away we could see the challenges of selling the business case.

HCL v9 was essentially a technical upgrade with little in the way of tangible new features that would normally excite commercial operators. The whole purpose was to switch the way the platform was built and managed, not to unveil a dazzling new array of tools that would have a direct impact on customer experience. Moreover, containerisation is a technically sophisticated concept that requires advanced skill sets to get right.

Another challenge stemmed from the fact that HCL announced the end of support for version 7 to coincide with the release of version 9. HCL Commerce v7 was at the time the longest-running and most popular iteration in terms of implementations. Our clients were therefore being forced to make some tricky decisions. In order to stick with HCL Commerce, they were being asked to embrace an entirely new approach to running a commerce platform that sounded technically difficult and which was likely to throw up a number of challenges, with benefits that at first sight seemed opaque at best. The alternative was to rethink their use of HCL altogether.

As long-standing specialists in HCL Commerce, we knew what our role had to be - clearing the technical fog around containerisation and platform architecture and making the business case for version 9 in language our clients could understand.

Unpicking the benefits of Containerisation

Sometimes the challenge for IT pros is being able to look at the technical benefits of a particular upgrade or development through the prism of business priorities. Thanks to years of experience in digital commerce consultancy, Wunderman Thompson Commerce has one foot firmly in both camps, and is therefore perfectly placed to translate and mediate between the two.

We could see where the business benefits of HCL Commerce v9 lay. It might not have come packed with exciting new features, but in many ways it offered something better - the ability to develop and customise brand new features on demand, at scale and at speed. And that is thanks in part to the inherent benefits of containerisation.

The concept of containerised architecture in software development was introduced by the company Docker in 2013. Docker defines a container as “a standard unit of software that packages up code and all its dependencies so the application runs quickly and reliably from one computing environment to another”. Like virtualisation, containers involve a form of abstraction. But whereas VMs (virtual machines) abstract operating systems (OS) from physical servers so you can run many more on the same hardware more efficiently (a key ingredient in Cloud technology), containers abstract applications from the OS. As Docker points out, a key benefit of this is that it means applications can be redeployed in different environments quickly, reliably and at scale.

This sounds great to IT specialists - but what exactly does it mean for a commerce manager? The best way to understand the advantages of containerised commerce platforms is to think about what was traditionally involved in re-staging platforms for different purposes, whether that’s different versions for different regional markets, different channels or so on.

HCL Commerce has always compared favourably with rival platforms in terms of the level of customisation it allows. We often recommended it over SaaS solutions because, in our view, it offered even greater flexibility. But the drawback of allowing high levels of customisation with a monolithic platform was that every individual bespoke iteration had to be programmed, configured and installed separately. This made even simple changes, such as building different checkout procedures for different markets, costly and complex, because you had to in effect reprogramme and retest the entire platform each time. Any customisation also had to be done manually, which opened the door to errors and inconsistency in performance and features across the stack.

In brief, containerisation offers one option for resolving these challenges. By building every application as a separate self-contained entity, you can quickly and easily run it in any environment you like, with guaranteed consistency in performance, without the need to rewrite pages of code every time. By the same token, if you want to make adjustments to individual apps, you know your changes aren’t going to impact on the rest of the programme, so testing is much faster and simpler.

Overall, this approach dramatically reduces development timescales and costs, and opens the door to picking and choosing exactly which features you want to run across different environments. That is why, in today’s multi-market, omnichannel commerce landscape where agile deployment of the right tools in the right places to create the right kind of customer experience is what gives operators competitive advantage, we recommend HCL Commerce v9 as a product that will future proof clients’ digital assets.

What we can offer with HCL v9

There was one other opportunity that made us really excited about HCL v9 - we could see how the containerised architecture opened the door to running an eCommerce platform as part of a fully managed cloud service, something which had been very difficult to achieve at enterprise level previously.

Although containers serve as very flexible building blocks for piecing together software platforms, speed and agility of deployment depends in practice on the broader ecosystem you build around the containers. With the release of HCL v9, we saw the potential to take advantage not only of the inherent benefits of containerisation, but also the added flexibility and agility of cloud services. We already had experience of deploying earlier versions of HCL Commerce in Amazon Web Service (AWS), and we applied this experience to developing a comprehensive offer for v9 in Google Cloud Platform (GCP). The key link was Google Kubernetes Engine (GKE), a dedicated container management service that forms part of the Google Cloud.

GKE provides a managed environment for deploying, managing, and scaling your containerised applications. Like most managed services, the big benefit of this is that it takes away much of the technical heavy lifting that comes with any advanced technology from the client side. For our clients, running HCL v9 through GKE means they can enjoy the full benefits of containerisation, focusing on rapid, agile application development and innovation, while our automated management system hosted in the Google Cloud takes care of the operational nuts and bolts.

Moreover, the fact that we can run HCL v9 in GCP opens the door to further advantages of running an eCommerce platform in the cloud - cost-effective, scalable development in a serverless environment, resilient, elastic architectures, functions-as-a-service (FaaS), Big Data analytics, machine learning and more.

DFS steps forward for a European first

Having developed this cutting edge offer for HCL v9, the first client to get onboard with it was DFS, the UK’s number one sofa manufacturer. We already had a long-running relationship with DFS, having built previous commerce platforms for the company in HCL Commerce v7 and v8. The reason the switch to v9 was perfect for DFS more or less right away was that the company was pursuing a wider strategy of moving its digital assets to the cloud. By lifting the company’s existing commerce platform from v8 to v9 and migrating it to Google Cloud, the aim was to reduce hosting costs, boost operational efficiency, implement highly dynamic scaling to cope with peaks in demand and increase the pace of innovation in introducing new tools, features and technologies to the DFS stable.

Technically, re-deploying an entire enterprise commerce suite in a containerised format as a hosted cloud service was challenging, and we had our very best DevOps specialists and platform architects working on the project. But the results justified our belief that HCL Commerce v9 represents a breakthrough moment in commerce platform architecture, that the combination of containerisation and cloud sets out a new paradigm for flexible, fully integrated, future-facing platform development.

The new platform built in HCL Commerce v9 now sits at the centre of a digital infrastructure which has seen DFS widely adopt cloud-native services and API-first/microservices architectures. As well as greater flexibility, scalability and operational efficiency, DFS now enjoys the benefit of a commerce platform which, rather than sitting in its own isolated silo, can be fully integrated with other services on demand, improving functionality and CX as required. It’s also a European first - the first implementation of HCL Commerce V9 running on Google’s public cloud platform.

Ultimately, the containerisation introduced with HCL Commerce v9 lays the foundation for enterprise commerce platforms to enjoy greater agility and, as we have discussed, make the switch to a cloud environment, with all the additional benefits that brings, more easily. The technology Wunderman Thompson Commerce built around HCL v9 creates a fully automated path to bringing new eCommerce environments and assets online. Supported by the correct Devops and continuous delivery disciplines, this marks a paradigm shift from the arduous, long-winded deployments that made innovation so challenging with the commerce platforms of yesteryear.

We are very excited by the direction of the platform and the opportunities it provides our clients, giving them the technology they need to effectively innovate.

To read the full story on our experience upgrading HCL Commerce to v9 and how we approached the DFS challenge, download the report:

Download HCL Commerce V9 Report

Contact us to find out how we can support you with your platform challenges to meet your eCommerce ambitions.