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Real-World Windows Azure: Hearst Newspapers Powers Premium Digital News Service with Windows Azure

As part of the Real World Windows Azure series, I connected with Roberta Kowalishin, Vice President of Web Technology at Hearst Newspapers to learn more about how the company used Windows Azure to…

As part of the Real World Windows Azure series, I connected with Roberta Kowalishin, Vice President of Web Technology at Hearst Newspapers to learn more about how the company used Windows Azure to quickly and cost-effectively build a mobile app to deliver premium content.  Read Hearst Newspaper’s success story here. Read on to find out what she had to say.

Himanshu Kumar Singh: Hearst Newspapers has a long legacy in print media.  When did the company decide to move into premium digital media?

Roberta Kowalishin:  Hearst Newspapers is one of the largest diversified media companies in the US. By 2011, we had been operating no-fee websites for several years and wanted to test subscription-based premium content, delivered to mobile apps, which would be branded separately for each news property.  We wanted to give our customers several ways to access that premium content..

We also planned to start a new initiative with an app for the Apple iPad and subscriptions through the iTunes Store. But we wanted to preserve our option to expand content delivery to other delivery platforms and subscription systems. To make this possible, we had some integration work to do.

HKS:  Tell me about the integration work you faced.

RK:  Content for our existing news websites resided in several content management systems (CMSes), all hosted at a major commercial provider. The database for our print subscribers was on another system hosted elsewhere on the Internet, making for a disparate cloud-computing solution. We envisioned that the iTunes Store, in yet a third location, would process content purchases and recurring subscriptions.

We needed a solution that would tie these systems together and that would orchestrate which offers were available to which users, based on their subscription status or purchase. The system needed to ensure that the CMS made the right content available to each user. And it would support new content systems and content delivery networks as we decided to include them.

HKS:  Did you also have business needs you needed to address?

RK: Yes, we needed a scalable solution to meet the increasing demands of a phased rollout across our many news properties and could handle likely traffic spikes due to news events. Given competitive pressures, we also decided that fast time-to-market was crucial. And we wanted our solution to be cost-effective, with low capital and operating costs consistent with the razor-thin margins of the media business.

HKS:  How did you decide to use Windows Azure?

RK: To avoid the delays inherent in deploying infrastructure, we focused on cloud-based solutions. When I think of the cloud, I really think of abstracting the management of the infrastructure, so we can focus on our application, our added value.  We looked at Amazon, but we would still have had to manage our servers, install updates, and do everything we wanted to avoid. Windows Azure is more than infrastructure-as-a-service; it’s a fully managed platform-as-a-service. That’s the way we wanted to go.

HKS:  Were there other technology decisions you made before developing the solution?

RK:  Yes, after deciding to adopt Windows Azure, we made a second decision about the language and technology with which to build that solution. Much of the technology we use runs on the LAMP stack: Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP. Much of the rest runs on Microsoft technologies. For the integration solution, we chose .NET, and Windows Azure SQL Database . For a solution that runs on Windows Azure, it only makes sense to use a consistent, end-to-end technology stack.

HKS:  How does the solution work?

RK: Built in a month, the solution is a token-based entitlement database (EDB) that interacts with the mobile app, the subscription database, and the iTunes Store.

Figure 1. The entitlement database hosted in Windows Azure mediates between Hearst’s subscription and content systems and Apple iTunes.

When the Hearst mobile app connects to the CMS to download premium content, the CMS first determines if the app is entitled to that content. If the app cannot present a token confirming a consumer’s existing print or digital subscription, or content purchase, the CMS redirects the app to the EDB to obtain one. The EDB checks the subscription system. If the consumer has a subscription that includes digital content, the EDB provides a token that the app then uses to obtain that content from the CMS. The token is secured with common secret key and hash procedures, and is completely compatible across platforms including the Microsoft .NET Framework, .PHP and Perl, as well as Hearst’s content delivery network.

If the consumer does not have a subscription, the EDB offers the options of obtaining a trial subscription through an “in-app” transaction, or purchasing content from iTunes. If the consumer chooses the former, the EDB updates the subscription system and issues the token. If the consumer chooses the latter, the EDB redirects the app to the iTunes Store to make a purchase. The app then presents the iTunes receipt to the EDB; the EDB confirms the transaction with iTunes and issues the token. Once the app has the token, it presents it to the CMS to obtain content. This process makes it possible for the EDB to incorporate the security policies of external subscription systems, should we wish to add them.

HKS:  When did the solution go live?

RK:  With Pariveda’s help, we put the EDB into production use in May 2011, as part of a mobile app rollout for the San Francisco Chronicle. We used the same infrastructure for a mobile app branded for the Houston Chronicle. Two more rollouts followed quickly, and we plan additional rollouts throughout 2012.

HKS:  What are some of the technical and business benefits you’ve seen from using Windows Azure?

RK:  First, Windows Azure enabled us to meet our goals to quickly create a high-quality solution to support our first mobile app, while preserving our flexibility to include additional devices, apps, and storefronts to expand our digital market share. Instead of the time—anywhere from a week to a month—that it would have taken to deploy servers at a traditional hosting provider, we deployed its Windows Azure instances in less than a day, a time savings of between 80 and 95 percent.

We also find that we can implement software updates more quickly with Windows Azure. It takes us a full day to build and deploy software updates to our traditionally hosted systems. We complete that same process in an hour or two with Windows Azure—a time savings of about 75 percent. It’s also more convenient. We can now implement updates during the day, which used to to be scheduled for nights or weekends to minimize impact on users.

HKS:  Has faster testing enabled by Windows Azure helped the quality of the solution?

RK:  Yes, the tight interoperability between Windows Azure and the development process enabled us to do more testing than we normally do and a more thoroughly tested application is a more robust application. We also benefitted from the Pariveda Continuous Integration Server, which resulted in faster development and more stable code. This enables us to maintain a stronger focus on the application and on maximizing business value. You can maintain a greater development velocity. That’s what we gained by using Windows Azure.

HKS:  What financial benefits have you seen with Windows Azure?

RK:  By hosting our EDB in Windows Azure, we avoided the hundreds of thousands of dollars in capital costs and operating expenses associated with building an on-premise solution and operating it over a three-year period. We also avoided the high fees associated with a traditional hosting provider. I estimate those charges would likely have come to $10,000 per month—compared to the $2,000 per month that we incur for Windows Azure—a savings of 80 percent and, over three years, of $288,000. For Hearst subscribers, the news has to flow as readily as water or electricity. Anything less could cripple adoption and our move into mobile apps. That puts a heavy responsibility on the EDB—one that it is meeting successfully.

HKS:  You mentioned earlier the importance of high availability to for this solution.  How has Windows Azure performed?

RK:  We hadn’t used Windows Azure and we were frankly concerned about the stability of the platform. We reviewed the five-nine’s SLA (service level agreement) and the ability of Microsoft to provide an urgent response to problems. We were satisfied—and Microsoft has delivered the high availability that we need.

Another part of high availability is having capacity on hand to meet traffic spikes. This was a particular issue for us, as we could not readily predict the number of subscribers we would see as we introduce mobile apps for our news properties. We launched the EDB in Windows Azure with six instances (three for web roles, three for SQL Database). That’s just 25 percent of the capacity that we had budgeted for with a traditional hosting provider. We’ve since expanded our Windows Azure use to 15 instances to meet growing demand and pay only for the instances we actually use at any given time.

HKS:  What’s next?

RK: Our strategy is to preserve our options so we can continually explore what works best in the digital marketplace. We’re using Windows Azure as part of that strategy, and we expect to move more of our systems to it. We can grow our environment quickly and at low cost. We can swap in various subscription offers without having to put new apps through iTunes. We can add apps for other mobile devices and add storefronts—including our own websites—and just plug them all into Windows Azure. We can’t know where the future is going, but we’re sure we’re ready for it.

Read how others are using Windows Azure.