Q&A with blinkbox Group IT Leader, Jon Robinson

Jon Robinson

blinkbox is one of the most popular movie and TV streaming services in the United Kingdom, with more than a million monthly users. Founded as a startup in 2006, it was acquired by UK supermarket giant Tesco in 2013.

Today, the blinkbox platform is hosted on Microsoft Azure Infrastructure-as-a-Service. blinkbox also heavily relies on Microsoft Azure Media Services for video distribution and is on track to reach a petabyte of Microsoft Azure Blob Storage usage.

blinkbox is now one of the largest providers of on-demand video service in the United Kingdom. Tell us about your journey getting here, and what that meant for IT.

Jon Robinson:  When I joined blinkbox five years ago, we were very much a .COM start-up.  Thirty people running all functions.  We had a very small on-premises data center, comprising of about a dozen servers maximum.  And we were using that to serve video to the U.K. market, something like 100,000 customers a month.

Originally, blinkbox was built as a movie and TV and demand platform for the U.K. market.  Since we’ve been acquired by Tesco, we’re now the digital entertainment arm of the company, and we serve movies, TV shows, books, and music to the U.K. audience.

How did you make the decision to move from an on-premises datacenter to the cloud?

Jon Robinson:  When you’re a small .COM start-up, money is oxygen and especially capital expenditure.  So at blinkbox keeping costs low was a key for our IT department.  Scalability’s difficult when doing any kind of a high-bandwidth application on the Internet.  Storage is very expensive, and keeping it available to the customer is difficult.  Our storage has to be online 24/7.  So that was a big challenge.

Performance and reliability are also critical, especially when the third largest retailer in the world is your parent company, and their reputation’s on the line.  Therefore, we needed to provide solutions which would allow us to maintain that reliability and performance to the customer 100% of the time.

We originally weren’t necessarily looking for a public cloud solution – our plan was to build another two on-premises data centers.  Then we hit a number of challenges in terms of our growth which didn’t translate financially to using the on-premises data center. We started talking to the guys at Microsoft Azure, we realized that the platform was a really good fit for blinkbox and the direction was to go there.  That was about 18 months ago.

What attracted you to Microsoft Azure?

Jon Robinson: The blinkbox platform is a fairly traditional Microsoft application – ASP.NET, SQL Server.  There were obviously parallels in using Microsoft Azure for our product moving forward.  However, there are some really compelling features in the Azure platform which work well for us.

Firstly, the Windows Azure Media Services transcoding engine.  It allows us to elastically scale very quickly however much encoding power we need to deliver all of our assets to all of our customers.

Secondly, we have horizontal scalability on the Web tier.  This allows us to meet peaks and demand without having to make capital investments in tin.

Also, the Blob storage which is geo-redundant across both regions, meaning that we can serve content from both data centers at the same time.  And if we have a problem with one of them, the other one just takes over.  That’s really expensive to do if you want to do it on premises.

And whilst blinkbox is very a Microsoft shop at its heart, we have a lot of other platforms and tools which run different operating systems and different environments.  A fantastic part of Microsoft Azure is that is broadly platform agnostic, there’s loads of Linux support, and it doesn’t treat Linux like a second-class citizen.  This allows us to run our breadth of tools across the platform without any concerns about reliability or downtime.

How has the move to Azure changed your business?

Jon Robinson: One of the things that people always talk about when they decide to move to the cloud is cost saving.  You only pay for what you consume.  That was a massive factor when deciding to move blinkbox into Microsoft Azure.  We had a plan to spend millions of pounds on on-premises tin and storage.  Now we can literally pay for what we use, and as we scale, that will proportionally grow with what our customers are demanding.  That makes it a lot easier for the business to manage.  We’re going to save millions of pounds because of Azure.  In the last year, blinkbox grew by 245 percent.  So that growth is going to continue, and we know that with Microsoft Azure it can grow with us.

Download the full blinkbox case study here, and watch the video here.