Campus Discounts was born from a simple idea: helping students to find and buy the essentials. As it grew into a fully fledged business, how could the startup keep operations moving full steam ahead?
Campus Discounts uses cloud database services delivered by IBM Compose to support its new social network, and harnesses IBM Watson™ to embed exciting cognitive capabilities into the platform.
Freesdevelopers to do their best work and build a great app
Top-notchexperience keeps users engaged and helps Campus Discounts grow
Innovativecognitive capabilities make it even easier for students to find deals
Business challenge story
Connecting students to great bargains
We live in a world where we are bombarded with information from so many different sources. Sometimes it can be hard to cut through the noise and find exactly what we’re looking for. Campus Discounts was created to solve precisely this problem—and it all started with a simple search for a new cell phone.
Don Omondi, Founder and CTO of Campus Discounts, takes up the story: “When I was still at university, I was looking to buy a new phone. I had to travel more than 22 miles to the nearest town to start window shopping. Given that we live in such a connected world, it was very frustrating that there wasn’t an easier way to find the information I needed. I knew that I couldn’t be the only one struggling with this problem. That gave me the idea to create a platform that could make it easy for students to find and buy things easily from sellers nearby.”
The opportunity to turn this idea into reality came when IBM held its SmartCamp competition in Nairobi, where Omondi placed among the finalists. Shortly thereafter, he founded Campus Discounts—a social network where students find and recommend discounts posted by vendors near their university.
Businesses create pages and post discounts on the campus site. Sellers who are interested in listing their offerings can tag up to three locations, which will make the discount show at all campuses within a default 10-kilometer radius. For an added fee, they can target a wider geography. Businesses can also access analytics, such as traffic flow, behavioral trends and more, on the same platform.
Students can view their campus page and find discounts nearby. After a free signup, students can also select product categories of interest and connect to fellow students through a buddy system. They can flag bargains and notify their friends easily via recommendations, which make up a user’s news feed and timeline.
Taking database management to the cloud
To power the new social network, Campus Discounts turned to the database-as-a-service model offered by IBM Compose. With Compose, the startup can build its app without having to worry about provisioning and managing the database backend.
Omondi elaborates: “First and foremost, as CTO of a growing startup, I have a lot on my plate right now. IBM Compose really comes in and takes the weight off my shoulders. I can focus on developing my code; I don't need to worry about installing databases, keeping them up to date, keeping my platform live or keeping it secure. And when I do need help, I can rely on the Compose support team for a prompt response.”
Powering the data layer of the Campus Discounts platform are six databases. The company uses MySQL for “primary” data such as users, discounts, business pages, apps and sessions. It uses Redis to cache this data for redundancy.
MongoDB serves as a repository for “secondary data”, derived from actions on primary data such as likes, comments, follows, ratings and reviews. Omondi says: “We like MongoDB because we can store and retrieve all these little pieces of data easily—they don’t have to be related with one another.”
The majority of the site’s user-centric features are handled by Elasticsearch. Omondi explains: “The reason we use Elasticsearch is for its power of geographic qualities, scoring and sorting of data, and flexible search capabilities.”
In Elasticsearch, discounts have a GeoShape field mapping, while campuses have a GeoPoint field mapping. Using these datatypes allows Campus Discounts, for example, to run a query in Elasticsearch for any discounts belonging to specific categories, with at least five likes, that have the word “Samsung” in their description and are located within a given radius.
“Elasticsearch makes these kinds of queries very easy to implement,” notes Omondi.
The fifth database that Campus Discounts uses is JanusGraph, a highly scalable graph database. The company uses this for graphing relationships between registered and non-registered users for social invites as well as to suggest new friendships on the platform based on their interests, what businesses they are following and more. This makes it easier for businesses to provide targeted discounts to different student segments.
Finally, Campus Discounts uses Compose for RabbitMQ, a popular message broker to synchronize, track, route and queue tasks that need to be processed later. “All our secondary data is persisted asynchronously, so developers who tap into our API can activate webhooks to know when it’s done,” states Omondi.
Running on top of the databases is PHP Symfony—a collection of reusable PHP script components—for the back end and Ember.js plus Node.js on the front end.
According to Omondi: “A lot of people dislike PHP, but it has an unrivaled community and library support which can be priceless for certain use cases. For example, the Symfony framework comes with Doctrine, a mature data persistence library for ORM, ODM and Cache, as well as ways to integrate them all.”
Building a better business
As a cloud platform, IBM Compose allows Campus Discounts to host databases in many locations and with different service providers. The platform also gives the startup much-needed flexibility to experiment and try out new things.
Omondi gives an example: “IBM Compose recently introduced ScyllaDB, which is a faster, Cassandra replacement database. So, if I wanted to test it out, I can just spin it up with a click and try it in minutes.”
And databases aren’t the only area where Campus Discounts is experimenting. The startup recently started using IBM Watson to embed cognitive capabilities into the platform. One idea that Campus Discounts has already implemented is matching real world items with discounts posted on the platform.
As Omondi explains: “Wouldn’t it be cool if you see a dress or bike that you really like, you take a picture, upload it to Campus Discounts, and we find nearby offers that match that image? With IBM Watson, we can now do that.”
Users can test out the cognitive discounts search, powered by IBM Watson, via a dedicated webpage. And Campus Discounts has taken this concept a step further, introducing a chat bot and a voice command feature.
According to Omondi: “Using the HTML5 audio API, you can talk to our Watson bot to find specific offers, or even to log out.”
Helpfully, as Compose databases are already available on IBM Bluemix® and Watson Data Platform, it’s secure, easy and performant to blend the two services. For example, IBM Watson can first make sense of a search request, and then Elasticsearch will retrieve the results.
With hard work and supported by the IBM solutions, Campus Discounts has seen rapid growth since its inception in 2015. The app is now available at more than 36,500 campuses worldwide—and both students and businesses are reaping the benefits.
Students no longer have to endure the effort of window shopping, and can instead find great deals from their computer or smartphone. Taking advantage of peer-to-peer product recommendations from people with similar interests and purchasing power helps increase the likelihood of students buying items they love, and ones that won’t break the bank.
For businesses, promoting products and deals on Campus Discounts means they no longer have to go to the effort of printing and distributing flyers, taking out ads in print media, or using other advertising methods that are hard to track. Sellers can reach a highly targeted audience at relatively low cost. What’s more, with Campus Discounts offering valuable data on buyers, businesses can harness the insight into market trends, product sentiment and competitors to shape more effective promotions and boost sales.
Omondi concludes: “With Campus Discounts, everyone wins—businesses get extensive marketing reach and smarter advertising, while students can find the products they really want, save money and connect with others. We are really excited with the way that our social network is changing buying and selling, and we look forward to continue working with IBM to take the platform to even greater heights of success.”
Take the next step
IBM Compose is a cloud-hosted platform for building enterprise applications on open source database technologies. Offering a choice of the best in open-source software databases, ready to go into production within minutes to support web and mobile apps, Compose combines practically unlimited auto-scaling with practically zero administration. For more information and to try out Compose for yourself, visit: ibm.com/cloud/compose
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