Hot Site Gets Hotter

Pacific Sunwear balances the load on its youth-oriented e-commerce site.

August 6, 2004

10 Min Read
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If it's hot and all the cool young dudes and chicks are wearing it, Pacific Sunwear sells it. Pick any trendy brand name--Roxy, Billabong, O'Neill, Vans, Flojos--and chances are its products are available from the Anaheim, Calif.-based retailer.

In an era when America's youthful consumers would just as soon spend their discretionary income on the latest in video game or music-related electronics gear as clothing, Pacific Sunwear has become one of the stellar successes in the so-called "lifestyle" retail marketplace. With more than 900 stores in all 50 states and Puerto Rico, as well as an increasingly successful e-commerce Web site, the company reported sales of $1.04 billion in the 2003 fiscal year, up nearly 25 percent from the previous year.

Pacific Sunwear has ridden the wave of popularity enjoyed by two widely disparate teen subcultures, the skate-and-surf crowd and the hip-hop set. It sells the types of stylish and trendy fashions favored by 12- to 22-year-olds, who prefer the casual look of baggy shorts, halter tops, hats, and sweats, according to the company's e-commerce site,

Even though Pacific Sunwear has yet to put its hip-hop brand, d.e.m.o, online--that will happen in 2005--e-commerce sales still made up more than $13 million of the company's revenue in 2003, up almost 80 percent from 2002. Sales continue to grow significantly this year, says Ron Ehlers, Pacific Sunwear's vice president of information services. As Dwayne Russell, the company's director of technical services, puts it, the company's e-commerce operations have become a sort of "build it and they will come" situation.

That is, each time Pacific Sunwear has increased bandwidth into and out of its self-hosted Web site, more visitors as well as buyers would come. (The company operates and hosts its site in-house for several reasons, including to maintain centralized control of all its e-commerce operations and to take advantage its strong IBM iSeries server and WebSphere knowledge base.) With its Web operations becoming increasingly critical, Pacific Sunwear had to shore up the performance of its e-commerce operations.To that end, the company backhauled one of its Internet POPs to Washington, D.C., to better meet the needs of its East Coast shoppers. It also moved to a new and more powerful e-commerce server and image delivery system and deployed application delivery appliances from NetScaler. What Pacific Sunwear didn't do was shop for more bandwidth, even as traffic to its e-commerce site more than doubled.

Here's how Pacific Sunwear managed to pull it off.


When Pacific Sunwear first began planning an online presence in 1998, the issues that came up were more social than technical. "We had two camps--one for and one against--about whether to offer our products online," recalls Ehlers, one of those in favor of the move to the Web.

"The 'against' camp said that, for our kids, shopping is a social experience, [done] in groups, and that the Internet is a solo shopping experience," he says. Moreover, they argued that most of the customers were under 18 and didn't have credit cards, and that Pacific Sunwear stores had become prevalent enough that the majority of these kids had access to them.The "for" camp disagreed. "We were still a long way from being in every city and town," says Ehlers, adding that at the time Pacific Sunwear had about half the 900 stores it has now. That meant a lot of kids who were potential customers didn't have access to a store.

Pacific Sunwear also noticed that other online catalogue sales companies were getting good response from teenage customers. The company's market research confirmed this, discovering that teenagers' online buying experiences weren't as solitary as it had originally figured. "Kids do shop together online," says Ehlers. "Whether using instant messaging or e-mail, it's still a sharing thing." In addition, these young buyers were apparently able to take a purchasing transaction to a certain point and then have their parents complete it for them.As the dotcom bubble began to expand and consumers used the Internet more, Pacific Sunwear also began getting a lot of requests for catalogues from kids who didn't have access to the stores, says Ehlers. "We'd never done a catalogue--we change styles so quickly that by the time we shoot photos, write copy, and print, we've gone on to other styles."

The dynamic nature of a Web site made a good catalogue medium for Pacific Sunwear. The company, like numerous other traditional retailers, took its first step online in 1998 with a content-only presence showcasing the clothing and accessories available at its storefronts.

In addition to adding shopping capabilities in 1999, Pacific Sunwear now publishes a broad range of content covering the skate-and-surf world. "The content makes the site 'sticky'--not just to shop," says Ehlers. "It's a big brand builder."


Over the first six years, traffic on the Pacific Sunwear site increased in a "stair-step" fashion, according to Ehlers. That is, traffic would ramp up to a new plateau during one of the chain's three peak shopping seasons--spring break, back-to-school, and the end-of-year holidays--then fall back again, but never to the same level as before. It would then reach another plateau during the next peak before repeating the process again.Ehlers has sales numbers to back up that claim. When the company launched its e-commerce operations in 1999, for instance, it generated about one and a half times the annual revenue of an average Pacific Sunwear store. That ratio jumped to about 6:1 in 2003 and is now about 14:1.

All in all, Ehlers says Pacific Sunwear's e-commerce site has been a great success. It's been so great, in fact, that the company had to take a number of measures to both bolster and maintain the site's performance.

One of the first steps came in November 2002, when Pacific Sunwear moved its e-commerce infrastructure onto IBM's WebSphere Commerce software running on an IBM iSeries server. The company also moved a significant number of its AS/400 application development staff into the WebSphere environment and the object-oriented world of J2EE programming.

That was fraught with its own set of problems. For one thing, IBM had to correct a previously undiscovered bug in the WebSphere software, while the company's application development team uncovered and fixed several resource-hogging bottlenecks not discovered in preproduction testing.

At the same time, Pacific Sunwear helped speed up its Web site's performance by deploying and mirroring a TrueSpectra image server, which houses the photos and illustrations of the shirts, shorts, and shoes sold on the company's graphics-intensive Web site. An image server not only centralizes and controls access to image stores, but also off-loads graphic content to specialized servers with local caching, thus optimizing delivery of the images to the company's product offerings.STRIKING A BALANCE

As traffic levels to Pacific Sunwear's self-hosted Web site grew, so did the shortcomings of its Internet access circuits. Yes, more traffic meant increased sales, but it also meant the company had to repeatedly increase the bandwidth it leased from AT&T to connect its site to the Internet.

Pacific Sunwear started with a pair of 1.45Mbit/sec T1 circuits in 2000, but had to ramp up to three T1 lines in 2001, adding a fourth one a half year later. When the company moved into a new data center in February 2002, it also upgraded to a single fractional T3 (10Mbit/sec) Private Virtual Circuit (PVC), delivered via microwave between Pacific Sunwear's data center and AT&T's central office.

As traffic continued to grow, Pacific Sunwear added yet another 10Mbit/sec fractional T3 PVC a few months later. This one, as noted, was a terrestrial circuit backhauled to Washington, D.C., in an effort to improve Web site performance for its East Coast shoppers. With AOL located across the river from the company's East Coast POP in Washington, the users of the nation's largest ISP got "terrific" performance coming into Pacific Sunwear's site, says Russell.

"We found that in every case when we added bandwidth, we saw a corresponding improvement in Web sales," he says. "As the end-user experience improved, sales went up with it. Our e-commerce people let us know they were extremely pleased."By July 2003, however, even the two 10Mbit/sec pipes had become saturated, says Russell. More specifically, traffic going out of the site and back to the site's visitors had become problematic.

"AT&T uses the BGP [Border Gateway Protocol], which by design load balances traffic coming in via our T3 lines, but it couldn't load balance it going out," he says. That's because Pacific Sunwear's Web servers were routing HTTP traffic out of the site via the most efficient T3 circuit--the microwave-based one--oversubscribing it with bursts of up to 13Mbits/sec.


Pacific Sunwear was faced with two choices: Add another fractional T3 circuit and pay the associated monthly fees, or look for a fixed-price device that could balance the outgoing as well as incoming traffic loads.

Russell's subsequent search for a load-balancing solution turned up three primary choices: NetScaler's 9800 HA application delivery switch, Packeteer's AppCelera ICX, and FatPipe's WARP load balancer.Pacific Sunwear selected the NetScaler device because it offered better compression and was more efficient and easier to use than the other boxes, says Russell. He says the NetScaler box proved to be approximately 25 percent more efficient than the others Pacific Sunwear had tested. (The company actually bought two NetScaler 9800 HAs, one as a redundant/ failover unit.)

In operation, the NetScaler 9800 "goes in between our servers and routers and captures outgoing HTTP requests and compresses them, so it reduces bandwidth requirements," says Russell. The oversubscribed T3 line that was running at 13Mbits/sec before the NetScaler boxes were deployed now uses only 6Mbits/sec. "It's cut bandwidth literally in half," he says.

Russell, along with Jim Dorris, Pacific Sunwear's enterprise communications architect, configured the NetScaler devices to ensure that responses to incoming traffic were returned via the same router that the original request came in on, thus balancing traffic.

Just as importantly, Russell adds, the devices compress objects requested from the server via the open-source data compression protocol, gzip, which is supported by all HTTP 1.1-compatible browsers. This reduces page download sizes. As a result, a page that would have taken 10 seconds to load on a 28.8Kbit/sec dial-up session now loads in five seconds. "That means a world of difference to dial-up visitors," says Russell.

The NetScaler 9800 offers three primary optimization capabilities, notes NetScaler Product Marketing Manager Anthony James. In addition to load balancing and compressing outgoing content, it also offers content caching and TCP offload/buffering.The TCP offload/buffering process, also called TCP multiplexing, allows Web servers to operate more efficiently by eliminating the constant "hello/goodbye" interruption of the TCP setup and tear-down handshake process that occurs in a typical HTTP exchange between a client and a Web server.


The bottom line: The NetScaler devices paid themselves off in about 2.8 months, says Russell. More importantly, Pacific Sunwear hasn't had to pay for more bandwidth.

"We're still using the two T3s at 10Mbits/sec each a year later," says Russell. And although it's impossible to predict traffic demands over the next year, Russell hopes that's all the bandwidth the site will need for the immediate future--or at least until the d.e.m.o. brand goes online in 2005. "We're in a good place right now," he says.

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