News International presses ahead on the cloud with AWS

News International has reaped public cloud benefits such as scalability, quick time-to-market and cheaper capital expenditure with AWS cloud

Adopting public cloud services almost two years ago has helped News International to save money on hardware expenditure and improve scalability, as well as enter into a lot of new digital channels such as iOS and Android markets quickly, thereby gaining a commercial advantage.

It all started in August 2010 when Paul Cheesbrough joined as the chief information officer (CIO) of News International, the publisher of the Times, the Sunday Times and the Sun in the UK. 

“Two and a half years ago, Paul came in as CIO and hired a few people including me,” says Ian McDonald, head of infrastructure and cloud at News International. “We all had some experience of using cloud computing and wanted to adopt it to improve our brands’ time to market.” 

Currently Cheesbrough is the chief technology officer (CTO) of the publisher’s parent company News Corporation.

The IT team decided to adopt public cloud over private cloud for its higher scalability and cheaper running costs. The team had virtualised 80% of its infrastructure using VMware products but decided not to use VMware’s private cloud services and instead opted for Amazon Web Services public cloud as the new IT team was familiar with the service.

“At that time Windows Azure had not got as much underway as AWS and Amazon seemed like the largest player who could innovate at a pace suitable to us,” says Ian McDonald.

Mounting its services

After chalking out its cloud strategy in detail for six months, the IT team began mounting its services on AWS platform starting in February 2011.

It started initially with just Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) – the service that provides organisations with unlimited set of virtual machines. It has since adopted AWS’s other services including Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) for storage, RDS for database, ELB for load-balancing, CloudWatch for monitoring and Elastic MapReduce for data analysis.

When it started, the team had a clear objective of consolidating its IT as well as reduce on-premises infrastructure.

Today, more than a third of its server estate is running on AWS.

Adopting a cloud-first strategy for competitive advantage

And just like the parent company News Corporation, the UK News International team has adopted a ‘cloud-first’ strategy and is considering building all new services for the cloud.

But what has made the IT team trust the AWS public cloud so much? For one, the organisation has saved between £1m and £1.5m on capital expenditure in the last two years. McDonald is also projecting another £3m savings in the next three years on server refresh to update its internal datacentre.

In addition to cost savings, the IT team sees the high degree of scalability and flexibility as one of the biggest advantages of the public cloud.

While the publisher does not expect traffic to experience seasonal spikes like the retailers, McDonald explains that having a high degree of scalability is crucial as it cannot forecast the number of people that will access its digital service.

Dealing with large volumes of traffic

For instance, the Times’ “Cities fit for cycling” campaign attracted a huge number of traffic. 

“You can never tell how much or how quickly any digital service will be accessed and you must be prepared to scale up the resources quickly to meet the demand,” says Dominic Courtney, manager for system engineering at News International

Courtney also highlights the benefits of AWS’s auto-scalability features. 

“Just recently, we were doing crowd-testing on an application and wanted to scale the resources up. In our traditional environment, it would have taken us at least two days to scale up the capacity whereas with AWS auto-scaling, we did it in under an hour,” he says.

But the benefits do not end there. 

“AWS cloud has been particularly useful for us from a big data perspective,” says Courtney. “It has made managing thousands of compute resources easy."

Responding to customers' digital needs

The public cloud has also helped the IT team capture and analyse the big data customer behaviour insights.

“Cloud services have opened so many more opportunities for us that were unthinkable with our traditional infrastructure,” McDonald says. It took the IT team too long to respond to customers’ digital needs with its legacy infrastructure.

The IT team’s faith in public cloud is telling when McDonald says, “Our long-term goal is to stop depending on an internal datacentre and use AWS for most IT services.”

It has already shifted sensitive applications and services such as its pay-wall system and content delivery system on to the cloud platform.

News International’s UK team would like to have at least 75% of its applications and services running on the public cloud within the next three years.

The team has also started migrating its existing enterprise workloads on to the AWS platform to meet its cloud objective.

Migrating existing apps that have been built for an in-house datacentre is the IT’s biggest challenge, Courtney says. Hence the cloud-first strategy for the new services.

Overcoming cloud security, downtime and interoperability issues

But doesn’t cloud outages, lack of interoperability or security risks worry the News International IT team? 

“The security risks you run whether internal or on the cloud are more or less the same,” McDonald says. “Besides, we also found that AWS offered a lower glitch-rate than our in-house datacentre.”

As for the lack of interoperability, McDonald explains that as most of its applications are built with opensource technologies, it has not encountered interoperability issues.

But there are risks on the cloud and that’s why it is important to pay for on-going support as well as undergo constant training to overcome challenges, Courtney advises.

Having reaped benefits such as lower costs, high degree of scalability, and improved time to market of the AWS public cloud, McDonald and his team are already developing proof of concept to move mission-critical application such as SAP ERP system on to the AWS cloud

“We are still at the planning stages and will take a year to go live but we want to be one of the early adopters to have a commercial advantage,” McDonald concludes.

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