by Stephanie Overby

Retailer Takes Control of Its Cloud

News Analysis
Dec 26, 20143 mins
Cloud ComputingIT StrategyRetail Industry

Chico's curbs its use of Amazon Web Services to get more say in how servers are tuned and configured with smaller provider called Contegix

“Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM,” as the old IT bon mot goes. The corollary for today’s cloud-based world could well be, “Nobody ever got fired for signing a deal with”

Inking a standard infrastructure-as-a-service deal with the big-name provider has clear benefits for many companies–scalability, flexibility, lower capital costs. But in exchange, cloud customers have typically given up much control.

When Chico’s CIO Eric Singleton first signed a deal with Amazon Web Services to put the retailer’s new customer information analytics systems in the cloud in mid-2013, that was a reasonable trade-off. He wanted to get up and running quickly with a small pilot.

But Singleton always knew he’d look elsewhere for cloud services before rolling out the analytics tools enterprisewide last fall. He wanted more say in how the software and data would be handled in the cloud. “Hardware selection does have an impact on overall system performance and scalability,” Singleton explains. He wanted to be able to choose the specific machines and configurations that would make his software run best. So last summer, he reduced Chico’s reliance on Amazon and switched to Contegix, a St. Louis-based cloud provider with an emphasis on customization.

“It gave us the latitude to have a more intimate relationship,” says Singleton, “where we could go to bare metal servers,” which are not virtualized, enabling them to offer performance and speed similar to dedicated servers. Chico’s can also help direct the configuration of its cloud infrastructure with Contegix, he says.

“The public cloud model is rooted in delivering one-size-fits-all services and using process and technology efficiencies to keep pricing down,” says Jonathan Shaw, principal with management consultancy Pace Harmon. “There will always be customers for whom Amazon’s services are an excellent fit,” Shaw says, “[but] following the explosive growth of cloud services over the past few years, the market now has sufficient scale to support entrants with solutions targeted to address more nuanced needs.”

Getting What You Want

The custom cloud isn’t right for everyone. But it’s a good fit for anyone looking to boost software performance with hardware choices outside the scope of typical infrastructure-as-a-service offerings, Singleton says. Specifically, Chico’s has a platform-as-a service product from vendor Disco Systems that serves as the foundation for a set of employee- and customer-facing applications, including Customer Book, which was rolled out to all Chico’s stores last year. Sales associates get reports on their iPads about individual customers, to help with sales. The app is part of what Singleton calls Chico’s “digital retail theatre,” a software suite designed to stitch together and analyze the totality of a customers’ experience across channels to provide more personalized service in stores.

Singleton admits that he might have negotiated a similar deal with Amazon, and there was no dissatisfaction with service. “But it wasn’t about that,” he says. “It was the simplicity and ease with which we could have that latitude with Contegix. The bigger you go, the less flexibility you get.” Indeed, Chico’s was able to customize quite a bit–selecting server configuration, number of services and virtual machine configurations. “Basically, it’s the cloud the way we want it,” he says.