Walmart Embraces Microservices to Get More Agile

 by: Mike Vizard


The retailer is using open-source technologies to build applications using thousands of microservices that can be dynamically invoked using well-defined APIs.

As part of an effort to make the world’s largest retailer more agile, Walmart Labs has been working behind the scenes to define a microservices architecture that leverages a two-year effort to change the organization’s approach to DevOps. Now Walmart Labs is looking to share the fruits of those investments by contributing the core code it uses to manage DevOps to the open-source community.

In 2013, Walmart acquired a DevOps platform that was developed by a small startup called OneOps for a specific platform-as-a-service (PaaS) environment. Since then, the IT teams in Walmart have spent  two years enhancing that software to create a DevOps platform that scales and is both cloud and programming language neutral, according to Tim Kimmet, vice president of platform and systems for Walmart Labs.

“We looked at all the DevOps platforms out there,” he recalls,  but “all the tools were too closely tied to either a specific platform or programming language.”

Kimmet says that Walmart Labs has decided to make OneOps an open-source project to give back to the open-source community it has been relying on for core technology since 2011. Specifically, the retailer is making use of open-source technologies such as Node.js and Cassandra databases to make it possible to construct various applications using thousands of microservices that can be dynamically invoked using well-defined application programming interfaces (APIs).

The strategic goal is to make it easier for application developers working in all Walmart’s business units to own their own applications in a way that ultimately reduces their dependency on a centralized IT organization. Within Walmart Labs, the team that Kimmet manages is specifically tasked with managing the software lifecycle and monitoring those applications to ensure their optimal performance, while the developers themselves manage the deployment and ongoing upgrades to those applications.

“We have a motto that says ‘if you built it, you own it,’” he says. “OneOps gave us a solid foundation to accomplish that goal.”

In effect, Walmart Labs is embracing microservices to drive the adoption of a continuous deployment methodology across the entire organization. In fact, the organization reports that some 3,000 engineers are using OneOps to drive 30,000 changes per month to Walmart software.

A Significant Increase in Business Agility

Walmart is hardly the only company to aggressively embrace open-source software to transform how it manages IT, but it certainly is among the largest. While that effort may require the retailer to devote more resources to developing and refining open-source software, Kimmet says the end result is a significant increase in business agility that derives from the ability of developers to extend the backend e-commerce services that Walmart has spent years developing in multiple new directions.

Those new applications, which span everything from mobile devices to the Internet of things (IoT), are crucial weapons in a global e-commerce contest that pits Walmart against the likes of Amazon and Alibaba, as well as a host of other rivals that are emerging as the cost of entry into the online retail sector continues to decline in the age of the API economy.

In fact, Walmart just predicted that its sales growth for this year will only be in the range of 2 to 3 percent, rather than the 5 percent it previously forecast. Since then, the company’s stock has been taking a pounding on Wall Street, wiping out millions of dollars in valuation.

To rectify that problem, Walmart plans to open hundreds more of its smaller stores in additional locations, and it’s investing $1.2 billion to $1.5 billion on e-commerce and digital projects next year—up from about $1 billion in the current fiscal year. In addition, Walmart reports that Internet sales will amount to about $12.5 billion worldwide this year, and it expects those sales to rise roughly 25 percent the following year. After that, the company is forecasting that online sales growth should average 30 to 40 percent through fiscal 2018.

Making Progress, but Playing Catch-Up

Judith Hurwitz, president of the IT consulting firm Hurwitz and Associates, says Walmart clearly underestimated the impact that rivals such as Amazon would have on its sales. “From day-one, Amazon was investing in IT systems to take on Walmart,” she points out. “They were not just thinking about books.”

In the last few years, Hurwitz says, the company has made a lot of progress in terms of providing an improved customer experience that spans both their online and retail outlets. But overall, she adds, Walmart continues to play catch-up.

Much like many IT organizations these days, a core part of the Walmart IT strategy is to hire lots of engineering talent to build new applications using open-source software. But Scott Crawford, an industry analyst with 451 Research, notes that open-source software cuts both ways in terms of benefits and costs.

“With open-source software, you can lower your costs and gain more visibility into the code,” says Crawford. “But support can be a challenge in the sense of finding a fix to a particular issue because there isn’t one vendor throat to choke.”

Regardless of how the company goes about becoming more agile from a technology perspective, IT organizations across the board would be well-advised to pay close attention to how the retailer’s IT strategy is evolving. As a company that generates billions of dollars in annual sales, Walmart has an impact on almost every part of the economy in one form or another.

So, when Walmart changes the way its applications interact with its backend systems, it’s only a matter of time before every organization that does business with the retailer will be required to follow suit.

About the Author

Mike Vizard

Mike Vizard has more than 25 years of experience covering IT issues in a career that includes serving as director of strategic content and editorial director for Ziff Davis Enterprise. He writes for multiple sites, including eWEEK, Baseline, Channel Insider, CIO Insight and IT Business Edge.

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