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SHOP APOTHEKE EUROPE: Scaling at speed with Google Cloud to keep customers in good health

About SHOP APOTHEKE EUROPE

Founded in 2001, SHOP APOTHEKE EUROPE provides consumers across Europe with a convenient and easy way to purchase drugs, as well as beauty and personal care products online. Selling more than 100,000 products to 4.7 million active customers, it is one of Europe’s largest and fastest-growing online pharmacies.

Industries: Healthcare, Retail & Consumer Goods
Location: Germany

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SHOP APOTHEKE EUROPE uses Google Kubernetes Engine to build a scalable front end that minimizes maintenance overheads, improves service, and fosters a culture of self-reliance among its developers.

Google Cloud results

  • Scales quickly and easily to meet customer demands during peaks with Google Kubernetes Engine
  • Speeds up development with multiple releases per day
  • Empowers developers to spend more time working on new products and features rather than on infrastructure maintenance

Google Cloud Functions helped cut CDN costs by 90%

SHOP APOTHEKE EUROPE was founded in the German city of Cologne, allowing consumers to buy over-the-counter or non-prescription drugs, as well as beauty and personal care products online. With a focus on customer needs and a commitment to innovation, the company has grown into one of Europe’s leading online pharmacies, selling to 4.7 million active users in seven countries: Germany, Austria, Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Switzerland.

“Being an online pharmacy, we wanted to focus our resources on delivering value to the customer instead of spending time on infrastructural ground work. With Google Cloud, we could build a new services-based architecture that scaled to our needs and helped speed up our development.”

Maik Jäkel, Director of Ecommerce Development, SHOP APOTHEKE EUROPE

In 2019, SHOP APOTHEKE EUROPE was still expanding at a rapid rate with acquisitions, a big new fulfilment center on the way, and a plan to build an online pharmaceutical marketplace. Such growth, however, required investment in more than just stocks and logistics. The company’s technology platform was showing its age and starting to hamper development and restrict scalability. Whenever developers wanted to make changes or updates, they risked disrupting the rest of the infrastructure. That’s why SHOP APOTHEKE EUROPE decided to move from a monolithic to a services-based infrastructure. Google Cloud provided the ideal solution.

“When we started to roll out a new service architecture to replace our existing monolith, it was clear that we also needed to rethink infrastructure. Being an online pharmacy, we wanted to focus our resources on delivering value to the customer instead of spending time on infrastructural ground work,” says Maik Jäkel, Director of Ecommerce Development at SHOP APOTHEKE EUROPE. “With Google Cloud, we could build a new services-based architecture that scaled to our needs and helped speed up our development.”

Google Cloud for scalability, reliability, flexibility

With on-premises servers, SHOP APOTHEKE EUROPE’s existing infrastructure was limited by physical constraints. Decisions about capacity had to be made up to months ahead of time so that new servers could be manually added and configured. In an industry as cyclical as ecommerce, such fixed costs can often mean wasted resources. “We would buy servers for peak periods such as Black Friday or the holiday season, but then the rest of the year, they might sit idle,” says Maik.

The company’s monolithic architecture was also creating strain for developers. Built up over more than 15 years, it needed a high level of maintenance to keep performing at the level it needed to. Though capable of delivering very good performance, the design of the architecture made additions and updates tricky for SHOP APOTHEKE EUROPE and its developers. “It was basically one big code base, so synchronizing our developers was a challenge,” says Maik. “If you made a change in one area, you had to make sure it didn’t affect another part of the platform.”

By early 2018, SHOP APOTHEKE EUROPE knew that it needed not just a new infrastructure, but a new type of infrastructure. Rather than sticking with a monolithic setup, the company opted for a services-based architecture and a matching infrastructure for it, choosing Kubernetes, the open-source container system developed at Google. Kubernetes can run in any environment, but SHOP APOTHEKE EUROPE needed a cloud-based infrastructure if it wanted to reduce management overhead and scale on demand.

After evaluating a number of providers, SHOP APOTHEKE EUROPE chose Google Cloud for its ease of use and flexible pricing. “We could offload much of our management overhead, and we wouldn’t have fixed server costs,” explains Maik. “It was the best option we saw that really gave us the advantage of the cloud and allowed us to pay for only what we use.”

As a trial, the company replicated one of its services in Google Cloud, specifically the shopping cart functionality of its online shops. Despite their lack of experience with Kubernetes and the cloud environment, the developers were impressed with how easily they could work on the new platform. “We went from just having a concept to building a working proof of concept in just three weeks,” says Maik.

“Google Kubernetes Engine combines the best of both worlds. There’s far less management overhead, but at the same time the architecture is very granular, giving us lots of control. We can go into the system and change whatever components we want to.”

Maik Jäkel, Director of Ecommerce Development, SHOP APOTHEKE EUROPE

After the successful proof of concept, the company set about migrating the rest of its infrastructure to Google Cloud. SHOP APOTHEKE EUROPE was determined not to disrupt the existing service and create problems for customers, so it planned a phased migration to be carried out over 2019 and 2020. The flexibility of Google Cloud ensured that the company could integrate its new cloud-based elements with the existing infrastructure and minimize any impact on customers. The first part of the migration was to move the customer-facing front end page by page to Google Cloud, beginning with the product detail pages that saw the most traffic.

Google Kubernetes Engine (GKE) is the backbone of this new front end, providing SHOP APOTHEKE EUROPE with a way of scaling resources at speed to keep up with customer demand and then scaling them back down in slower periods.

“Google Kubernetes Engine combines the best of both worlds,” says Maik. “There’s far less management overhead, but at the same time the architecture is very granular, giving us lots of control. We can go into the system and change whatever components we want to.”

To reduce its management overhead even more, SHOP APOTHEKE EUROPE also uses Istio, an open source service mesh, to stay in control over service connections and to monitor cluster traffic on GKE. Memorystore became a key component of SHOP APOTHEKE EUROPE’s new internet-facing API layer, ensuring a high level of performance even under heavy traffic.

Dealing with sensitive medical data means that privacy and data security are top priorities for SHOP APOTHEKE EUROPE. With Google Cloud, the company benefits from extensive security certification and the highest levels of compliance with global standards. “We looked at all the security certifications that come with Google Cloud, and that was a decisive factor for the board,” says Maik.

Upgrading the toolset, changing the culture

SHOP APOTHEKE EUROPE launched its new front end with Google Cloud in June, 2019, and the new infrastructure was put to the test immediately. During the Black Friday period, the company had no problem scaling to meet customer demand without compromising performance.

“With Google Cloud, we can theoretically scale infinitely, so we can easily handle sudden increases in load,” says Maik. “It’s super stable when scaling, so our customers continue to get the smoothest possible service.”

“We have also learned to appreciate the use of Cloud Functions to solve isolated problems,” says Maik. Replacing the existing image rendering engine of its CDN with a function using Cloud Functions has helped SHOP APOTHEKE EUROPE to reduce its CDN costs by more than 90%. “Those are huge savings that make us appreciate the benefits of Google Cloud even more. The image rendering engine is responsible for the quality and size of all images delivered to our customers. So it directly contributes to our rapid page speed, which is directly tied to a great customer experience and our sales. It was a real stunner that we could replace the existing solution with an equivalent, at such a savings rate.”

“Our developers are more aware of the systems that are running under their code with Google Cloud. It’s made them take more responsibility and helped to spread a ‘you ship it, you run it’ mentality.”

Maik Jäkel, Director of Ecommerce Development, SHOP APOTHEKE EUROPE

IT staff at SHOP APOTHEKE EUROPE have responded well to the new style of infrastructure. Google Cloud and its ease of use have allowed them to develop new ways of working, expanding the existing continuous integration methodologies. With GKE, developers no longer depend on other departments to release new builds, because they now have control over all the resources they need. Releases take just a few minutes instead of hours like they used to. The loose coupling of newly written services allows for multiple releases per day instead of a single release per week.

“Our developers are more aware of the systems that are running under their code with Google Cloud,” says Maik. “It’s made them take more responsibility and helped to spread a ‘you ship it, you run it’ mentality.”

After a successful launch, SHOP APOTHEKE EUROPE is focused on the next phase of its journey with Google Cloud, transferring its back end component by component. The company is about to go into production with Cloud SQL, which brings the benefits of ease of use, rapid scalability, and high availability to database management. Developers are also exploring Cloud Functions as a way of getting environments up and running very quickly for testing or running some experimental features. Using Google Cloud means that developers have more time to work on new features and products instead of worrying about maintenance.

“We want to be the best online pharmacy around. We don’t want to spend our time fiddling with infrastructure,” says Maik. “Google Cloud helps us keep our focus on thinking up new benefits for customers that they can’t find anywhere else.”

Tell us your challenge. We're here to help.

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About SHOP APOTHEKE EUROPE

Founded in 2001, SHOP APOTHEKE EUROPE provides consumers across Europe with a convenient and easy way to purchase drugs, as well as beauty and personal care products online. Selling more than 100,000 products to 4.7 million active customers, it is one of Europe’s largest and fastest-growing online pharmacies.

Industries: Healthcare, Retail & Consumer Goods
Location: Germany