Case Studies

How Rapha incrementally migrated to a composable ecommerce system and achieved 100x developer productivity

Netlify and Rapha logos

Case Studies

How Rapha incrementally migrated to a composable ecommerce system and achieved 100x developer productivity

Netlify and Rapha logos

Rapha—one of the world’s best-loved cycling apparel brands—was on a mission to perfect its digital experience. The brand promise was there. The vision was too. However, Technology Director Ben Bodien realized almost immediately after joining the team that the processes and technology in place with their legacy systems were holding them back.

I came from a scrappy startup world where we just try something. Ship it. And if it doesn’t work we’ll iterate on it—usually in production. In my first week at Rapha, I discovered a bug in a release three minutes after it went live only to find out I had to wait another two weeks for another release.

That wasn’t going to work. Here's a sneak peek into some of Rapha's key outcomes:

  • Productivity: One release every two weeks to as many as they want—sometimes 10 a day.
  • Time savings: Eliminated meetings about planning releases and decreased time-to-market.
  • Performance: More powerful tools, functionality, and easier-to-operate apps.
  • Confidence: Unparalleled partnership and support.
  • Validation: Automated deployments through pipelines and happier developers.

The challenge

As a global ecommerce company, the stakes for delivering an exceptional online shopping experience are high. Brands must often deliver hyper-personalized and differentiated websites to convert curious shoppers into lifelong customers. This requires development and marketing teams to work together, spin up and rapidly deploy site experiences, unleash their creativity, and ultimately do so with relative scalability and cost-effectiveness.

At Rapha, the team was facing several core challenges with their current process and tech stack:

  • Inability to deploy their site frequently—leading to a reactive and restrictive environment for experimentation
  • Hampered creativity and insufficient developer experience
  • Inability to rapidly resolve bugs and rollback as needed
  • Prohibitive pricing
  • Vendor lock-in

At the time, everything on Rapha’s site was rendered by a large server application called Hybris and every developer had a copy of it on their local laptops. The release process looked like a git branch where everything would be tested—manually—and merged into a release candidate which was deployed on a two-week cadence. The release itself would take up to eight hours in many cases.

What’s worse, if a bug was detected, a “hot fix” was required and the eight-hour deployment would start over.

Needless to say, the developer experience wasn’t great. Beyond the rigid process, even small changes were big hurdles. If they wanted to swap a logo on a page—for example—an entire deployment would need to be scheduled for something that’s literally one line of CSS.

Everything needed to be a planned project which hampered creativity and overall excitement for launches. Things like collaborations with other brands became tedious and heavy-lifting was commonplace.

You’ve got one shot, and if you miss that, then you’ve got to wait ages for another go.

As if this wasn’t frustrating enough, the cost of this inefficient operation was staggering—not to mention unscalable. To paint the picture, the team would have to make a phone call to Rackspace, provision a new instance, and once they were done with that instance it was another phone call and email to get it taken down. This would cost an additional thousands of dollars per month, but for the sake of some semblance of efficiency, the team opted to run 365 days a year at peak capacity with no scaling whatsoever. The self-hosted model meant the license cost of this system was doubled with infrastructure costs for compute and database hosting.

To push the issue, Bodien cited the inflexibility of five-year contracts as more problematic than the license pricing itself.

There had to be a better way.

The solution

In 2017 when Bodien joined the team, his first major project was to redesign their website—its first major look-and-feel refresh. However, at this time, headless commerce wasn’t really common practice, and looking back Bodien believes they missed an opportunity to move off of Hybris.

Fast forward several years and the problematic Hybris license duration was nearing its end. At that point, Felix Alonso, Rapha’s Systems Architect, proposed they start looking at API-driven commerce platforms. What started as a small project (a third-party visual editor for their product pages) quickly became a novel idea.

Once we had a taste of the flexibility of decoupling systems—the ability for the frontend integration to run at its own pace without being hampered by the big backend—we said to ourselves, ‘Why don’t we do everything this way?’

This ultimately led them to assess the market for API-driven solutions. Landing on Commerce Layer for their commerce platform, Contentful for their headless CMS, and Netlify for web hosting and deployment. With the right mix of hyper-specialized API-driven platforms and integrations, Rapha was able to build a more efficient solution than SAP Hybris’ out-of-the-box alternative.

When asked why Rapha took a build vs. buy approach, Bodien explained:

Our purpose is to inspire the world to live life by bike. While our brand, products, and global reach are special, we aren't so unique that we need to build bespoke solutions for elements of our stack which are more or less available as commodity offerings.

He continued to recount that Rapha’s time to market has greatly decreased:

We’ve gone from one release every two weeks to as many as we want. It’s a multigenerational leap from where we were.

Anecdotally, Bodien presented an instance where a developer posted in a Slack channel: “Hey, I’ve got this thing ready. Does it look okay?” Someone else responds, “Yes.” And the deployment was underway. This sometimes happens ten times a day. And with easy rollbacks through Netlify, risk isn’t even a consideration.

Ultimately, Rapha’s developers enjoy delivering exceptional results for their product team, and more importantly, their customers. Being able to leverage Netlify’s CI/CD facilitates this. It allows them to separate releases to production into single-purpose changes. This means that they don't have one massive release with hundreds of changes, where if any one thing regresses they'd have to figure out which specific change caused the problem.

Why Netlify, Contentful, and Commerce Layer

With Netlify, the ability to build a solution tailor-made for Rapha’s business came automatically. Netlify’s play-nice-with-others platform allowed Rapha to shop around for the point solutions that made the most sense for them.

They selected Contentful originally for their mobile app—as they needed an API-driven CMS. They've since expanded their use to include all web content and it will soon also host their product catalog where enriched attributes are added, such as descriptions and product features.

Commerce Layer was selected as the best-fitting ecommerce solution because they were looking for a pure transaction processing service without PIM, CMS, or anything else attached as baggage. Their philosophy in this regard matched theirs.

But what really set Netlify apart from the competition was its focus on being a partner rather than a service. It was like a “breath of fresh air,” noted Bodien. What’s more, compared to alternatives, Netlify is more agnostic in terms of frontend framework and “just nice people to work with,” Bodien continued.

What’s next for Rapha?

“Well, finishing all the integrations,” Bodien chuckled. But on a more serious note, the current goal is to get every part of the experience off the old platform and onto Netlify. “Then maybe a celebratory bonfire, and burn an effigy or something as we power off the old platform and say goodbye to those bills,” Bodien resumed comedically.

Nevertheless, the work is never done. The opportunities a composable architecture can afford you are limitless. Another project Bodien and the team are excited to begin is changing the presentation of their brand—the look and feel that they haven't been able to evolve because the cost of change has been so expensive. As well as other localization projects partnering with marketing teams who know their consumers’ needs better in different regions of the world.

Curious if a composable system on Netlify is right for you. Get in touch with an expert today.

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