Media Company Reduces Time-to-Market by 80 Percent with Cloud-Hosting Solution
When Hearst’s newspapers division decided to introduce a mobile app for premium content, it wanted to do so quickly and cost-effectively—but with underlying technology that would be reliable, scalable, and flexible enough to support future digital strategies. Hearst chose the Windows Azure cloud-computing environment. Through the use of Windows Azure, Hearst avoided the costs of new hardware and reduced continuing costs by 80 percent. The solution achieves high availability with just 25 percent of the capacity required for a traditional deployment. The deployment process took less than a day, compared with Hearst’s traditional process for hosted applications, which takes anywhere from a week to a month.
"It typically takes us two to four weeks to size new computers, obtain a purchase order, receive the computers at our hosting provider, deploy images, join the computers to the network, and put them into production."
More than 120 years ago, William Randolph Hearst was busy building what would become one of the largest diversified media companies in the US. Today, the company that bears his name wants to ensure that it continues to lead in digital media. By 2011, Hearst newspapers had been operating no-fee websites for several years. The company wanted to test subscription-based premium content, delivered to mobile apps, which would be branded separately for each news property. Hearst wanted to give its customers several ways to access that premium content. For example, current subscribers of a Hearst newspaper print edition would get the digital content for free. Nonprint subscribers could purchase online content or choose a 14-day trial subscription.
And those were not the only options that Hearst wanted to keep open. The company planned to start its new initiative with an app for the Apple iPad and subscriptions through the iTunes Store. But it wanted to preserve its option to expand content delivery to other delivery platforms and subscription systems. To make this possible, Hearst had some integration work to do.
Content for Hearst’s existing news websites resided in several content management systems (CMSes), all hosted at a major commercial provider. The database for the company’s print subscribers was on another system hosted elsewhere on the Internet, making for a disparate cloud-computing solution. Hearst envisioned that the iTunes Store—in yet a third location—would process content purchases and recurring subscriptions.
Hearst 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 Hearst decided to include them.
Hearst also had to consider its business needs. The company needed a scalable solution to meet the increasing demands of a phased rollout across Hearst’s many news properties. It needed scalability to handle likely traffic spikes due to news events. Hearst also put itself under an aggressive one-month deadline to go live with the new system; given competitive pressures, Hearst executives decided that fast time-to-market was crucial. And those executives wanted their solution to be more than fast and effective—they wanted it to be cost-effective too, with low capital and operating costs consistent with the razor-thin margins of the media business.
The immediate key to success was winning the race to complete the project in the allotted one-month period. That requirement eliminated Hearst’s first potential solution: buying and deploying servers at a third-party hosting provider, which Hearst had done with its subscription and content systems.
“It typically takes us two to four weeks to size new computers, obtain a purchase order, receive the computers at our hosting provider, deploy images, join the computers to the network, and put them into production,” Roberta Kowalishin, Vice President of Web Technology at Hearst Newspapers. “Even reducing the number of physical machines with virtualization still would have taken us one or two weeks. We didn’t have the time.”
For guidance, Hearst turned to its solution provider, Pariveda Solutions, a Microsoft National Systems Integrator and a member of the Microsoft Partner Network with multiple Gold competencies. “Pariveda brings us senior-level technical expertise and consistent project management,” says Kowalishin. “For an organization going through a lot of change, like ours, that’s important.”
To avoid the delays inherent in deploying infrastructure, Hearst and Pariveda focused their attention on cloud-based solutions, in which computing resources are accessed from remote data centers across the Internet. To mitigate its risk, Hearst eliminated smaller cloud providers from consideration. Its remaining options were the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud and the Windows Azure environment from Microsoft. “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,” says Kowalishin. “We looked at the Amazon solution, 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.”
After deciding to adopt Windows Azure to host the integration solution, Hearst made a second decision: about the language and technology with which to build that solution. Much of the technology that Hearst uses runs on the LAMP stack: Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP. Much of the rest runs on Microsoft technologies. For the integration solution, Hearst chose Microsoft: the Windows Azure operating system, Microsoft .NET Framework, and Microsoft SQL Azure. “We decided that for the enterprise back-end systems that power our company, we want Microsoft. For a solution that runs on Windows Azure, it only makes sense to use a consistent, end-to-end technology stack.”
Together, Hearst and Pariveda built the integration solution in a month. That solution is a token-based entitlement database (EDB) that interacts with the mobile app, the subscription database, and the iTunes Store.
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 Hearst wish to add them.
Hearst and Pariveda put the EDB into production use in May 2011, as part of a mobile app rollout for Hearst’s San Francisco Chronicle. It next used the same infrastructure for a mobile app branded for the publisher’s Houston Chronicle. Two more rollouts followed quickly, and Hearst plans additional rollouts throughout 2012.
Hearst met its goals to quickly create a high-quality solution to support its first mobile app, while preserving its flexibility to include additional devices, apps, and storefronts to expand its digital market share.
Reduced Deployment Time by 80 Percent, Update Time by 90 Percent
Hearst wanted its mobile app deployed fast. It achieved that by deploying the EDB on Windows Azure. Instead of the time—anywhere from a week to a month—that it would have taken to deploy servers at a traditional hosting provider, Hearst deployed its Windows Azure instances in less than a day, a time savings of between 80 and 95 percent.
“By using Windows Azure, we saved the time and trouble of obtaining and deploying traditional servers,” says Kowalishin. “But that was only part of what got us to market so quickly.”
Kowalishin points to the faster testing process that Hearst achieved with Windows Azure. Hearst used Windows Azure to create test instances and run load testing in a day, compared to the two to three weeks that the process normally requires. Kowalishin was so pleased with the result that she expects to move the company’s development testing to Windows Azure, too.
The initial deployment was not the only process that Hearst accelerated by using Windows Azure. The company finds that it also implements its software updates more quickly with Windows Azure. It takes Hearst a full day to build and deploy software updates to its traditionally hosted systems. It completes that same process in an hour or two with Windows Azure—a time savings of about 75 percent.
Because the update process is now faster, it’s also more convenient. Hearst can implement updates during the day; previously, such updates had to be scheduled for nights or weekends to minimize the impact on users.
Produced Higher-Quality Software
Kowalishin says that Hearst and Pariveda used the tight interoperability between Windows Azure and the development process not only to bring the EDB to market faster—but also to create a higher-quality application. Because setting up test servers was faster and easier, for example, Hearst did more testing than it normally does—and a more thoroughly tested application is a more robust application. Similarly, Hearst benefitted from the Pariveda Continuous Integration Server, which it used to automatically generate, test, and stage the EDB code base, resulting in faster development and more stable code.
“When you don’t have to think as much about testing and deployment issues, you can maintain a stronger focus on the application and on maximizing business value,” Kowalishin says. “You can maintain a greater development velocity. That’s what we gained by using Windows Azure.”
Kowalishin and her colleagues anticipated this benefit—but they did not anticipate the benefit from using Windows Azure to stage the EDB. “The ideal is always to have the staging environment exactly replicate the production environment, so that the software performs as you expect when you move it into production,” says Kowalishin. “That’s the ideal—but it often doesn’t happen that way, because it costs too much to bring in the new hardware that’s usually required. But with Windows Azure, we could readily create identical staging and production environments—and then deploy the EDB with the push of a button.”
Reduced Continuing Costs by 80 Percent
By hosting its EDB in Windows Azure, Hearst 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. It also avoided the high fees associated with a traditional hosting provider. Kowalishin estimates that those charges would likely have come to $10,000 per month—compared to the $2,000 per month that Hearst incurs for Windows Azure—a savings of 80 percent and, over three years, of $288,000.
Gained High Availability; Now Uses 75 Percent Less Capacity
For Hearst subscribers, the news has to flow as readily as water or electricity. Anything less could cripple adoption and the company’s move into mobile apps. That puts a heavy responsibility on the EDB—one that it is meeting successfully.
“We hadn’t used Windows Azure and we were frankly concerned about the stability of the platform,” says Kowalishin. “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 Hearst, as it could not readily predict the number of subscribers it would see as it introduces mobile apps for a growing share of its news properties. With an on-premises or traditionally hosted solution, reserving extra capacity comes at the cost of buying and maintaining hardware that may sit unused for months or more.
That was not the case with the deployment using Windows Azure. Hearst launched the EDB in Windows Azure with six instances (three for web roles, three for SQL Azure). That is just 25 percent of the capacity that it had budgeted for with a traditional hosting provider in order to handle likely traffic spikes. Hearst has since expanded its Windows Azure use to 15 instances to meet growing demand, paying only for the instances it actually uses at any given time.
Preserved Flexibility for Growth, Change
Once Hearst has enough experience with its mobile apps—it’s now rolling out its fourth one—to evaluate their success, it may want to modify and expand them in ways it’s not yet thinking about. If so, it won’t have to think about whether its technology will help or hinder the effort.
“Our strategy is to preserve our options so that we can continually explore what works best in the digital marketplace,” says Kowalishin. “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.”