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GameStop – Moving a Mission-Critical Multichannel Marketing Platform to AWS

GameStop sells new and pre-owned video game hardware, software, and accessories, consumer electronics, and wireless services. With over 7,000 retail locations spread across 14 countries, the company sells to and interacts with millions of customers every day. In addition to their retail locations, they follow an omni-channel strategy and run a loyalty program with over 46 million members worldwide.

I spoke with Justin Newcom (Senior Director, International Technology Services & Support) and Jim March (Advanced Cloud Systems Engineer) of GameStop to learn how they moved their mission-critical multichannel marketing platform from traditional hosting to AWS. This is their story!

The Business Challenge
The story begins in March of 2015 when one of GameStop’s existing international hosting contracts was about to expire. The GameStop team decided to take a serious look at alternative hosting solutions. They sent out an RFP (Request For Proposal) to several traditional hosts and to some cloud vendors, including AWS. As the responses arrived, it became obvious, in Justin’s words, that “AWS was the clear winner.” Jim, after returning from a briefing held by another cloud vendor, dug in to AWS and found that it was far more mature and sophisticated than he had once thought.

They decided to move forward with AWS, basing their decision on the product, the pace of innovation, our reputation, and our pricing. However, even though they had picked the winner, they knew that they still had a lot to learn if they were going to have a successful journey.

The Journey Begins
The GameStop technology leaders decided to create a learning culture around AWS. They spoke with other AWS customers and partners, and ultimately brought in a prominent AWS Consulting Partner to accompany them on their cloud journey. They chose the mission-critical multichannel marketing platform as their first migration target. This platform goes beyond e-commerce, and manages all in-store customer activities in Canada and Europe, as well as online customer interaction. It integrates in-store and online activity; allowing, for example, customers to make an online purchase at the cash register.

The migration to AWS was complete in time for the 2015 holiday shopping season and AWS performed flawlessly. The first Black Friday was a turning point for GameStop. Even though they were not yet using Auto Scaling, they were able to quickly launch new EC2 instances in order to meet demand.  The site remained up and responsive.

Early in the journey, some other initial successes proved to be important turning points. For example, the team had just four hours to prepare for a “surprise” launch of Nintendo’s Amiibo in Canada. The launch went off without a hitch. Another time, they spun up new infrastructure on AWS to deal with a special sales promotion that was scheduled to last for just six hours. This went well and cost them just $300 in AWS charges. In light of these early successes, internal teams were empowered to think about other high-impact, short-term marketing programs, including “spot” sales that would last for an hour or two. Jim told me that events of this type, once traumatic and expensive, were now “fun.”

Time for a Transformation
With the first migration successfully completed, the next step was to transform the IT organization, acquiring cloud skills and experience along the way, as they became the organization’s cloud infrastructure team. As part of this modernization, they made sure that their team was gaining experience with Agile and DevOps practices, along with new technologies such as microservices and containers. They brought in modern tools like Jira and Confluence, sought executive buy-in to take new approaches and to run some experiments, and arranged for a series of in-house courses. I should note that this is turning out to be a very common model among companies that are taking a big leap in to the future! In some cases the cloud  begets the use of other modern practices; in others the use of modern practices begets the use of cloud.

With the transformation well under way, the team is now looking at all of ways that they can use AWS to improve efficiency and to save money. They anticipate becoming a different type of internal IT supplier, with the ability to form strong internal partnerships, provide better purchasing advice, and to assist teams that have varying levels of IT expertise. Costs have gone down,  predictability has gone up, and they are now positioned to build and deploy innovative solutions that were not feasible in the past.

GameStop is now looking to consolidate their international IT infrastructure resources, some of which are housed in “data rooms” (not quite data centers) in disparate non-US locations. They see AWS as a single platform to develop against, and have instituted a common model that can be replicated across locations, business units, and applications. They are no longer buying new hardware. Instead, as the hardware reaches the end of its useful life the functionality is moved to AWS and the data room is emptied out. At the present pace, all eight of the data rooms will be empty within three years.

Migrating to and Using AWS
Migration is generally a two-stage process for the GameStop international teams. In the first stage they lift-and-shift the current application to the cloud. In the second, they refactor and optimize in pursuit of additional efficiency and better maintainability. Before the migration the multichannel team saw IT served via third-party partners as a bottleneck. After the move to AWS the relationship improved and the teams were able to cooperatively work toward solutions.

During the refactoring phase they take a look at every aspect of the existing operation and decide how they can replace existing functionality with a modern AWS alternative. This includes database logic, network architecture, security, backups, internal messaging, and monitoring.

The team is intrigued by the serverless processing model and plans to use AWS Lambda and Amazon API Gateway to rebuild their internal service architecture, replacing an older and less flexible technology stack in the process. They are also planning to route all logs and metrics to Amazon CloudWatch for storage and analysis, with a goal of making them fully searchable.

The migration is still a work in progress and there’s still more work to be done. Some of the EC2 instances are still treated as pets rather than as cattle; the goal is to get to a model where all of the infrastructure is dynamic and disposable, and where logging in to a server to check status or to make a change is a rarity.

I asked Justin and Jim for advice and recommendations they could make to other organizations that are contemplating a move to the cloud. This is what they told me:

  • Go all-in on automation. Expect it and build for it.
  • Treat infrastructure as code. Take the migration as an opportunity to create a culture that embraces this practice.
  • Do everything right, from the beginning. Do not move an application that will cause you grief, simply to move it to the cloud. Choose your low-hanging fruit and spend your initial budget on what you know. Treat the migration as a learning process, but save money where you can.
  • Don’t cave to time pressure. Communicate with your business partners. The cloud is new for everyone and there will be bumps in the road. Be open and transparent and explain why things take time.
  • Ensure that the leadership team is all-in with the IT team. Having top-down buy-in from your management team is a must.

Jim also told me that he likes to think of the AWS Management Console‘s Launch Instance button as a form of technical debt that must be repaid with future automation.

I would like to thank Justin and Jim for their insights and to congratulate them on their work to move GameStop’s IT environment into the future!


Jeff Barr

Jeff Barr

Jeff Barr is Chief Evangelist for AWS. He started this blog in 2004 and has been writing posts just about non-stop ever since.