IT and business partner up at Lavalife

When Loren Hicks took over as CIO of Toronto-based Lavalife in early 2002, the renowned dating service was undergoing some big changes.

The software that at the time underpinned its online presence, originally designed by a local firm acquired by Lavalife, was aging badly at a time when site hits were rising quickly. “It wasn’t going to withstand that,” said Hicks.

He joined CTO, George Howitt, and the 70-person tech team — a total of 400 work at Lavalife worldwide — in helping to re-architect a system based on Apache and Perl. Looking back, what amazes the 30-year IT veteran, whose career included a long stint at one of Canada’s major banks, was the speed and focus given to the project. In fact, Hicks said most Lavalife projects have a six-week turnaround, shooting for no more than two months for larger tasks.

What makes that possible, he said, is the unique nature of Lavalife’s business, worth an estimated $100 million annually. “It’s the unwillingness of this organization to tolerate a bureaucratic mentality…none of that happens here,” he said. “People with that mentality tend not to survive very long. And it’s those people who are the traction on projects.”

By its very nature, Lavalife is a technology-focused company — Howitt said unlike other firms, where IT supports the business, he and his team “creates and manages the products that drive all our revenue.”

As a result, executive buy-in on IT’s decision-making is easier to obtain. Hicks said the practice he’s seen in other workplaces — where vendor reps spin their pitch to business leaders on the golf course, who then in turn pressure IT executives — doesn’t occur.

That also means that many customer-facing initiatives are born within the tech team, Howitt added. Typically, new project ideas are floated, and then handed over to a two-person team, made up of a designer and a developer. Each reins the other in, making sure proposed projects are financially and technologically feasible. Also, the tech team itself is divided into a product development unit and a “business as usual unit,” Howitt noted, dealing mostly with bug fixes and maintenance.

Although a one-time Apache/Perl shop, today the site runs on a farm of Sun Microsystems Inc. servers running “all the latest” versions of Java and Tomcat. That was primarily a productivity decision, Hicks said, with more tools and skilled people available in the latter environment. Lavalife also runs a Sybase database on Solaris that is the lynchpin of the online operation, handling about 4,000 hits a second. The interactive voice response system also sits on Solaris. The Web applications are hosted on commodity Intel boxes. The network infrastructure and other central systems run on Linux servers. Lavalife’s online community has 700,000 active members who exchange an average of two million messages per day. The site also attracts five million unique visitors daily.

“If it’s too slow, [visitors] just go somewhere else, they don’t talk, and we don’t make money,” Hicks said. Along with the burgeoning interest in open source (the phone-based, interactive voice response software may soon migrate to Linux), Lavalife also maintains what Hicks and Howitt call a “low-cost” philosophy to IT. For instance, Lavalife doesn’t pay maintenance contracts to any vendor. “A whole bunch of people just pay these bills, and I don’t know why they do,” Hicks said, referring to the premium paid on contracts for maintenance. Instead, Lavalife employs a “sparing” strategy — several servers lay dormant until one of the farm units breaks down, then it’s swapped in.

But what makes Lavalife unique as a business also poses the tech team with its biggest challenge. “It’s hard to find other organizations that behave similarly to how we behave,” Hicks said. “It’s also hard to get out of the office.”

In fact, he is considering opening up contact with a military agency, found by request via Sybase, over “some things of interest.” Security also plays a big role for a company that trades on its reputation for protecting not only credit card information, but also its members’ privacy, as well as maintaining a functioning Web environment.

“People try to get information from us. Hack attacks, there’s a steady stream of that,” Hicks said, although none have been successful. Unless two parties online choose to share data, it’s unobtainable, given that such data isn’t stored anywhere on Lavalife’s systems.

One annoyance, however, is prostitutes, mostly freelance, soliciting their services via URLs contained in e-mails sent from Lavalife’s system. A part-time security group patrols the site for such activity. In the future, Howitt expects mobility, voice over IP and the trend toward medium convergence will play a bigger role in Lavalife’s fortunes.

“You can also expect WAP products from us in the future. That’s going to be a big thing for us,” he said.

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