Like most ambitious businesses, Cars.com aims high.
The Chicago-based company, already arguably the world's leading online automobile marketplace, wants to solidify its standing as the number one automotive marketplace. To do that, Chief Technology Officer Manny Montejano knows the company must find a way to be more agile and efficient, improving the site in ways that make customers happy and increase revenue while keeping pace with its staggering growth, which continues to break internal records year over year.
When Montejano arrived at Cars.com in September 2005, he quickly realigned employee responsibilities to reflect the company's business strategy and refined processes related to software development and integration.
However, that was only the tip of the iceberg. What the company really needed, Montejano suspected, was a rip-and-replace strategy of Cars.com's entire infrastructure strategy. To confirm his suspicions, he hired Perficient, an Austin, Texas-based systems integrator. Led by lead architect Don Miller, Perficient fully assessed Cars.com's IT services, platform and organization, finding that the haphazard collection of technologies acquired over the years had produced an extremely inefficient system that made it difficult to get much done.
In effect, Cars.com's IT staff was spending more time trying to integrate legacy products and systems than developing its own products.
Part of the problem, Montejano said, was that the platform had evolved along with the business over the preceding 10 years and included everything under the sun, from ATG Linux, which is no longer supported, to aging Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems servers running BEA Java.
"Not only did we have multiple pieces of technology from multiple vendors and multiple sources, but we had multiple versions within those," he said. "For example, we were running two or three versions of Linux, which created the need to create three user test cases in QA [Quality Assurance] to ensure that all three versions of the operating system would behave the same. Multiply that by all of the permutations of everything, and that led to a very long and complex QA process."
Integration was another headache.
"Even as we were writing very clean software on our end, we would have integration issues. Mitigating our integration issues became a finger-pointing exercise," Montejano said. "I just wanted to be able to call one vendor to solve a problem."
Achieving Cars.com's business goals would involve a major realignment of the platform, Perficient's assessment found. Essentially, Perficient recommended a full rip-and-replace to modernize the IT environment, along with standardizing on a single vendor and implementing an SOA (service-oriented architecture) approach.
"As a dot-com, the business relies heavily on technology, and they weren't able to deliver more than one project in a year with their existing setup. Basically, they had reached a screeching halt in their business," Miller said. "The SOA environment will allow them to be agile and use plug-and-play technologies in such a way that their business can react faster to market conditions and eventually become proactive."
After researching its options with Perficient, Cars.com settled on a virtually all-IBM platform. The core of the platform is the WebSphere application server, which houses the Java-written Cars.com application. The application server runs on four IBM Power series servers with the P5 chipset running AIX, IBM's Unix variant. Also in the stack is the WebSphere process server, which models various business processes and is a key component of the SOA strategy. On top of that is the WebSphere portal server, which is used as a single interface to multiple business applications. The system's presentation tier is J2EE-based JSP (Java Server Pages), served off of WebSphere.
Another important component is the IBM Information Server, which pulls information from the hundreds of data feeds that Cars.com receives from its affiliates each day. The information is processed, consolidated and standardized in a way that can be easily used throughout the organization, said Tony Brown, an IBM account executive who worked with Cars.com.
The final two pieces are IBM Rational Software, which helps Cars.com IT staff rapidly develop applications and services in Java, and Tivoli monitoring software, which helps the company monitor its hardware, operating system and software as well as schedule the hundreds of jobs and feeds it manages every day. The only non-IBM applications are the Interwoven content management solution and an Oracle database.
"No matter the target environment-portal, process server, WebSphere or application server-developers are dealing with familiar tools and the same environment," Montejano said. "This leads to agility and reuse as well as quick ramp-up times for our developers."
Although the project, which began in January 2007, is only about 40 percent completed, it has already yielded astonishingly good returns.
First and foremost, it makes everything easier and faster. For example, the new system allowed Cars.com to vastly improve a bread-and-butter program called Certified Pre-Owned, or CPO. Most car manufacturers have CPO programs to let consumers know that they stand behind specific pre-owned vehicles they have certified.
"What seems very simple-to flag a vehicle as a CPO from a manufacturer-actually consisted of a lot of steps and infrastructure, and it took several weeks and a lot of manual effort," Montejano said. "Now the CPO feeds happen much more quickly, and we even have a project underway where we will be able to roll out three CPOs at once."
The new infrastructure also allows the IT department to take on projects that are important to the business-something that has been a problem for years. For example, the new infrastructure allowed them to move forward with a request for the business to participate in Super Bowl commercials, because Montejano was confident that the system could handle the spike in traffic. In fact, the enhanced technology infrastructure ended up supporting a 20 percent traffic spike in the week following the Super Bowl as a result of its two 30-second ads.
The infrastructure also allowed Montejano to say "yes" to the business group that wanted to forge a strategic partnership with Yahoo Autos. The agreement, which went live in December, makes Cars.com the exclusive provider of used car listings and exclusive listing service for private party sellers on Yahoo Autos.
Perhaps most importantly, the system is scaling to meet the needs of the company. The company has outpaced its revenue and number of unique visitors each year and today is up to an inventory of 2.7 million vehicles, thousands of dealers, and millions of unique visitors per month. With the former architecture, "we just couldn't have been able to scale to those levels," Montejano said.
What's more, the company's dealer leads have increased by 40 percent over last year, stemming from the consumer site enhancements and increased marketing investments the IBM stack and SOA approach have made possible, he said.
Eventually, Montejano said, the system will include more than 20 servers, and the scope is ever-changing.
"As we see the ability to use this platform for more business initiatives, we continue to add scope to the re-architecture," he said. "We've built a bridge to our legacy platform and we use the phrase -When we blow-up the bridge, we'll be done.' At this point, we're looking at another couple of years if we execute our current roadmap."