CIO Interview: Chris Birch, IT Director, News UK

Chris Birch, News UK's IT director talks about how the company adopted a cloud-first strategy to support business innovation

When News UK’s flagship brands The Times and The Sunday Times went behind a paywall, some dismissed the move as a “foolish experiment” while others looked on curiously. The brands are moving slowly from loss to profit, a triumph that can be attributed to the company's IT and cloud strategy.

In fact, the program has made such a difference that Chris Birch, IT Director at News UK, will also oversee cloud implementation at News UK’s sister brands Harper Collins, Dow Jones and Wall Street Journal Europe.

“At News UK, we don’t like to use the term ‘paywall’, we call it access control,” Birch says, before elaborating on News UK's IT strategy.

News UK built its content "access control" system in 2010, around the same time that it its then CIO Paul Cheesbrough adopted a “cloud-first” strategy.

As part of the cloud-first strategy, News UK began using Amazon Web services' (AWS) infrastructure as a service (IaaS), Salesforce's platform as a service (PaaS) and Google Apps ' software as a service (SaaS), as part of its public cloud infrastructure.

“When we started, we had about 30,000 subscribers. But in a year, it reached 100,000,” Birch says. “Our datacentre would have been incapable to handle such a load or cope with such scalability needs.”

Today The Times and The Sunday Times have 375,000 monthly subscribers and the IT team is able to deliver the subscription-based content on to the readers’ device of choice.

Public Public cloud has given us huge power and the agility to meet changing business requirements at News UK

The IT team uses AWS platforms, including Amazon EC2 – which provides organisations with unlimited set of virtual machines – Amazon S3 for storage, RDS for database, ELB for load-balancingCloudWatch for monitoring and Elastic MapReduce for data analysis.

It uses Google’s public cloud services for email and collaboration and uses cloud products too.

“Public cloud has given us huge power and the agility to meet changing business requirements at News UK,” says Birch.

So how is News UK’s IT strategy translating into business opportunities and revenues?

For one, the organisation has saved between £1m and £1.5m on capital expenditure in the first two years by using the cloud services.

But for Birch, auto-scaling is one of the biggest advantages of a cloud infrastructure. Because of a scalable, responsive IT, News UK could easily implement its new business idea, Sun+, making The Sun the first red top newspaper to start charging for content, he says.

But that’s not all. The cloud infrastructure allows News UK to focus on time-bound revenue-generating projects. For instance, it bought exclusive content rights for English Premier League and Scottish Premier League seasons and exploited this exclusivity to increase revenue.

In four months, Birch and the team built sophisticated access control systems to manage this exclusive content, such as sports video clips, for its subscribers and even built mobile apps around them.

AWS’s auto-scaling capabilities even enabled us to build a timely app for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee

“If we had to use our legacy infrastructure and traditional datacentre for this project, it would have taken me four months to just procure the infrastructure to provide it to the apps team,” he says.

“What’s the use of having exclusive content rights, if the IT cannot deliver the project on time?”

After the Premier League season, the IT team can scale down the infrastructure to save costs. News UK will then also be able to buy exclusive rights to, say, cricket video clips and follow the same revenue-building strategy.

Scaling the infrastructure helps the IT team respond to business requirements quickly while at the same time, cut IT spend by scaling down during quieter periods.

“AWS’s auto-scaling capabilities even enabled us to build a timely app for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee,” he said. “We built the app in just two weeks.” It was scaled down soon after the jubilee event.

Birch and his team do some clever stuff using the cloud architecture such as cloning The Sunday Times app to quickly build the Jubilee app. This means there is no need to have a bunch of idle infrastructure lying around anticipating new projects such as the Jubilee app. 

“With the cloud, IT is no more seen as a necessary evil. It is easier for us to drive the point of technology investment in the board,” he says.

I don’t buy into private cloud. It is essentially a datacentre – maybe a better one, but still a datacentre with hardware infrastructure

For Birch, IT is all about enabling the business to deliver time-bound projects on time and at scale. “I don’t want to sit there and plan the technology for a project one year in advance and then spend some more time post-project deciding what to do with the idle infrastructure,” he says.

With a robust IT, Birch is able to cater to the company’s IT demands of brand extensions such as Times Education, Times Money, Times Tutorial etc.

The future is cloud

Like his predecessors, Birch is an IT visionary who bets on the public cloud.

“I don’t buy into private cloud. It is essentially a datacentre – maybe a better one, but still a datacentre with hardware infrastructure,” Birch says. He wants to consolidate it further by moving more workloads and applications on to the public cloud.

Taking the cloud-first strategy a bit further, he now wants News Corp to exit the datacentre business altogether. He and the IT team have already laid the foundation for the move – the IT at News UK is 95% virtualised.

“Our aim is to exit the datacentre business completely. Datacentres are expensive and don’t provide us with the agility our business needs and it is not our core-competency,” he says.

At its peak in 2010, News Corp had 65 datacentres spread globally. Today, with virtualisation and cloud adoption, that figure is down to 46.

Because of the success of News UK’s IT and cloud strategy, News Corp has charged Birch with the task of overseeing the cloud implementation at News Corp’s seven other brands including WSJ and Harper Collins. “As much as 80% of News Corp’s IT can go on to the public cloud,” he says.

Birch has set himself a lofty task – migrating at least 75% of this planned IT estate on to the cloud within three years.

The Sun’s editor, David Dinsmore, recently said: “Sun+ will be made up of three pillars: Sun+ Goals, Sun+ Digital and Sun+ Perks. With access to Sun+ Goals, members get exclusive access to near-live video clips of every Barclays Premier League goal on the go – hours before the football round-up programmes have even started.” All of which is enabled by Birch and his team’s IT strategy.

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