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Real World Windows Azure: Interview with Steve Gable, Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer at Tribune Company.

As part of the Real World Windows Azure series, we talked to Steve Gable, EVP and CTO at Tribune Company, about using the Windows Azure platform to build the company's centralized content…

As part of the Real World Windows Azure series, we talked to Steve Gable, EVP and CTO at Tribune Company, about using the Windows Azure platform to build the company’s centralized content repository for all its editorial and advertising information. Here’s what he had to say.

1.     MSDN: Tell us more about Tribune and the services you provide.

The Chicago, Illinois-based Tribune Company operates newspapers, television stations, and a variety of news and information Web sites. Since 1847, the American public has relied on Tribune Company for news and information. The company began as a one-room publishing plant with a press run of 400 copies. Today, we employ approximately 14,000 people in the United States across the company’s eight newspapers, 23 television stations, and 50 news and information Web sites. Tribune online receives about 6.1 billion page views a month.

2.     MSDN: What was the biggest challenge Tribune faced prior to adopting the Windows Azure platform?

The newspaper industry is facing declining revenue, a tough economy, and the advent of new media applications that vie for consumers’ attention. To compete, we needed to transform from a traditional media company into an interactive media company. One of the barriers to that sort of transformation was the company’s geographically dispersed technology infrastructure. We managed 32 separate data centers, with a total of 4,000 servers and 75,000 feet of raised-floor space that is dedicated to supporting and cooling those servers. We also maintained 2,000 software applications that were not consistent from newspaper to newspaper or television station to television station. With eight individual newspapers and a “silo” approach where we had data dispersed all over the country, it was difficult to share content among our different organizations. For instance, a Tribune photographer could take a wonderful photo, yet only one paper could efficiently access and use it. We also sought to expand the number of ways in which customers and Tribune employees could consume that content. We wanted to switch from presenting the information that we thought was relevant to offering more targeted information that our readers deem relevant. Additionally, we wanted to provide greater value for our advertisers by ensuring that their ads are seen by the right customers, through whatever means those customers prefer.

3.     MSDN: Can you describe the solution you built with the Windows Azure platform to help you address your need for cost-effective scalability?

The first step toward achieving this new role as an interactive media company was to establish a standardized information-sharing infrastructure for the entire company. We quickly realized that building the kind of internal infrastructure necessary to support that role was not achievable from a cost or management perspective. We already had too many data centers to manage and knew that we needed to consolidate them. We produce about 100 gigabytes of editorial content a day and about 8 terabytes at each of the 23 television stations every six to 12 months, and we kept adding hard drives to store it all. That’s just not a sustainable model for a company whose storage needs grow so quickly. We decided to use several components of the Windows Azure platform to build our repository:

  • Worker roles to create as many as 15 thumbnail images of each photo that is uploaded and placed in Windows Azure Blob storage, which stores named files along with metadata for each file. The multitude of thumbnails provided flexibility in using photographs of varying sizes in different media formats. We are currently using between 10 to 20 instances to handle the amount of content we upload every day.
  • Windows Azure Content Delivery Network for caching blobs on its edge networks.
  • Microsoft FAST Search Server 2010 to make the content fully searchable.

As of June 2010, Tribune is processing its publication content and sending it to Windows Azure. We anticipate that we will have all non-historical publications uploaded to the cloud repository by summer 2010, bringing all current Tribune publications under a single, searchable index.


4.     MSDN: What makes Tribune unique?  

The sheer volume of data that we produce makes us unique. We currently have a capacity plan for approximately 100 terabytes of content at the end of the year, and that number does not include videos; photos; digital archives, which go back to 1985 for print publications; or non-digital archives, which trace back to the 1800s. Just uploading our current content is a huge job, but we want to eventually add all that historical content to the cloud repository, which could be petabytes of data.

5.     MSDN: What are some of the key benefits Tribune has seen since implementing Windows Azure?

For Tribune, the move to cloud computing with Windows Azure supports the drive toward new, interactive media and the ability to provide more relevant content to readers, in whatever form they wish to consume it. Tribune is a 150-year-old business that has had to transform from a traditional media provider to an online, interactive company. Adopting Windows Azure helps us heighten our relevance with both consumers and advertisers by creating compelling solutions and new opportunities in a scalable, cost-effective way. The pay-as-you-go model is a lot less expensive than the U.S.$1.5 million annually that we would have spent on the infrastructure to handle all our data. Embracing Windows Azure cloud computing means that Tribune now has the ability to scale its infrastructure up or down, according to demand. And developers in our technology department were so comfortable working with the Microsoft .NET Framework that minimal training was necessary for the move to the Windows Azure platform.

6.     MSDN: Have you been able to reach new customers as a result of using Windows Azure?

Tribune will be able to explore new business opportunities without the risk of investing significant up-front resources in projects that it decides not to pursue. Using the Windows Azure model lets us take some risks where otherwise we couldn’t afford to. New opportunities are open to us because, with the pay-as-you-go model, we don’t have to invest a lot of capital to try out a new idea. The company also can be more agile in responding to advertisers’ requests. With Windows Azure, we can expand to include different revenue opportunities in response to advertisers’ changing needs.

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To read more Windows Azure customer success stories, visit:  www.windowsazure.com/evidence