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Feature: Watchfinder Moves Services To Microsoft Azure

Watchfinder specialises in providing a luxury service for its customers—but in order to do that, it has to have a solid infrastructure as a foundation, from its staff to the technology the company uses. IT Director Jonathan Gill has been working to streamline the company’s business processes by improving its IT systems—most recently, by moving from Amazon Web Services (AWS) to Microsoft Azure.

When Watchfinder started business in 2002, the tech requirements were relatively small—but as the company grew, so did the demands on IT support. In those early days, the company used in-house systems and open-source software, which presented its own problems. “You get stuck with a capacity planning problem when you’re working with physical hardware,” says Gill. “You need to predict how many machines you’re going to need to cover the load you’re expecting, and commit spend for what you think you may use—but then you might end up not using it all apart from, for example, on a busy Black Friday. It’s a waste of money.”

Gill looked to Amazon Web Services (AWS) to solve the problem, and save the company money. Amazon offered utility based computing, so Watchfinder was only charged for the server data it needed. “AWS had virtual servers, and it meant that I could provision just the servers I needed for any particular moment of time,” says Gill.

The company has expanded so much, though, that by 2016, it was using 16 virtual servers, which all still required a certain amount of care and security patching. Rather than overloading his team or bringing in more human resource to do it, Gill started investigating an alternative software solution. That was where Microsoft Azure came into play, which offered platform as a service (PAAS) cloud computing.

Jonathan Gill

“With Azure, we still have the virtual servers, but Microsoft manages those—we just put our individual applications onto their servers and scale up when we need more resource,” he says. “What that means is we can concentrate more on delivering value to the business by putting the systems in place to sell watches, and not waste time on managing our core infrastructure.”

Gill also cultivated a change of ethos in his team, promoting a more collaborative way of working: “Instead of having developers (who write the code) and operations (who do the physical running of things) separated, throwing things back and forth, we have brought them both together.”

By encouraging more collaboration and communication between software developers and operations, the management and development of Watchfinder’s IT systems have been streamlined. “We use something called continuous integration and continuous deployment, which in a nutshell means we have created something like a factory floor,” says Gill. “You’ve got the raw material at the end where the code is, and it moves down stage by stage by stage until it’s in the customers’ hands.”

The whole idea is to help the company move faster in safety. “When code is released, it has to undergo peer review and testing,” says Gill. “Only when it passes does it go live, so it’s really well tested before it’s in front of the customer.”

This means that Watchfinder customers get a fast, fluid retail experience when buying a watch—and it leaves the door open for new features. It’s this kind of progressive thinking that’s getting Watchfinder noticed as a company at the forefront of innovation. An interview with Gill about Watchfinder’s move to Microsoft Azure was recently featured on the front cover of Computing magazine, the leading publication for the UK computing industry, and the migration was also the subject of a Microsoft case study earlier in the year.

So what’s in store for the future? “We’ve got a new website coming out, and internally we’re moving across to machine learning,” says Gill. “We’ve got 15 years’ worth of data, and inside that data is lots of insight. So rather than feeling based decisions, we can ask the data to prove or disprove whether we should do things a certain way.”

This evolution is all based around Gill’s core belief of getting the most out of IT to reduce the burden on Watchfinder staff. “The most powerful resource we have in the company is the human brain, so we don’t want to bog down the humans doing the mundane tasks. If we can lift that off their shoulders, and allow the people to do the intuitive things, then things can only get better.”