Public cloud prepares Tesco's digital entertainment arm Blinkbox for Christmas

Tesco's Blinkbox ditched its in-house datacentre for Microsoft Azure so it could scale to meet Christmas demand

Blinkbox, Tesco's video-on-demand service, expects more than 100,000 Hudl tablets (pictured) under Christmas trees this year, loaded with gift vouchers, will allow loved ones to watch their favourite films. And it is confident the scalability and agility of using public cloud will help manage the high traffic and meet user expectations without downtime.

The service had an on-premises datacentre two years ago. “It was pretty standard stuff - Intel, Microsoft Windows, commodity storage, RAID arrays and so on,” said Blinkbox’s IT director Jon Robinson, speaking at Microsoft’s Future Decoded event in London this week (10 November 2014).

“It was enough to keep us going, but then our customer base started increasing rapidly – we moved from thousands of customers to millions in a month – thanks to the Tesco acquisition and investment.” Tesco bought Blinkbox three years ago to enter the online video-streaming market.

But managing growing traffic and meeting users' expectations was not the only challenge for the IT team. Storage was its other big problem.

“Today, we have 30,000 pieces of video content, including movies and popular television programmes. Two years ago, it was about 20,000 and that accounted for some 600TB of data at that time and we were running out of space rapidly,” said Robinson.

With the in-house datacentre, Blinkbox’s IT had an obvious single point of failure: “We couldn’t afford more - we did not have the budget to build redundant datacentres,” Robinson said. 

Blinkbox launched with funding from venture capitalists but, when Tesco acquired it, the IT team had to ramp up its back-end technology infrastructure to deliver user experience to a higher standard. “The brand at stake is Tesco – and that means we couldn’t afford any downtime or inconsistent user experience,” Robinson said.

Hudl bundle

Tesco’s acquisition also provided a business opportunity - as Tesco’s Hudl tablet devices are sold, Blinkbox could market and bundle its video services. But, if it were to capitalise on new opportunities and resolve its storage challenges, it needed a more agile and resilient IT environment.

The IT team realised it would need two datacentres and highly scalable storage systems. “We would also need to build the datacentres with high-availability features – with five nines. We did our maths and found we would have to ask our parent company Tesco to assign millions for Blinkbox’s IT overhaul,” said Robinson.

So the team started exploring public cloud options and picked Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform. “At that time Azure was a platform as a service (PaaS),” Robinson said. 

“But our digital platform was based on a traditional .Net file and that meant we needed Windows servers to run them. Running it on PaaS means we will have to miss some of the website’s features.”

But Azure would provide Blinkbox with high availability, speed, scalability and low IT costs - all high priorities on Blinkbox's wishlist.

After weighing the benefits of migrating to the cloud, the team tailored the site’s architecture to run on Azure. Today it doesn’t have to worry about a single point of failure, as its IT infrastructure is deployed at both Azure’s Dublin and Amsterdam datacentre sites. “We now maintain the 30,000 pieces of content in both datacentres with three copies each - so an awful lot has to go wrong for us to go down and not deliver to the users,” he said.

Blinkbox uses an active-active datacentre set-up, which involves operating and managing two facilities simultaneously with the same input/output processes. But, even if a service goes down, Robinson is confident the team is equipped to address it quickly: “If ever a service goes down because of badly written code or a bug, we can easily spin up more virtual machines to get us through the operation.

“This kind of scalability and quick response wouldn’t have been possible with an on-premises infrastructure.”

Cloud agility

But the agility of public cloud has brought more advantages to Blinkbox. The brand has to render its content on different types of tablets, smartphones, streaming devices and operating systems. “Some device giants love to keep their upcoming products and versions secret until the launch. When a new iPad is launched, my chief executive walks up to me and says, ‘Right, we need to encode our back catalogue to fit the rendering specifications of the new iPad,’” Robinson said.

With an in-house datacentre, encoding the full content would have taken six months: “Azure provided us with hyperscale capabilities - something we couldn’t have done ourselves.”

Robinson said nearly 30% of Tesco Hudl tablets sold are yet to be registered or switched on: “We expect there to be about 100,000 of those under the Christmas trees this year. And if they have Blinkbox vouchers for free movies, there will be a huge spike in traffic during that time,” he said.

“We have about five weeks now to get ready and it will be possible only because of our public cloud infrastructure. We wouldn’t have been able to be ready without the cloud. In our datacentre, it would have taken us two or three weeks to procure the additional servers and configure them, and we would have had to ask the marketing team to scale back their campaigns.”

Low capital expenditure

Robinson also said Blinkbox has benefited from cloud’s low capital expenditure model. “Now we don’t have to buy a bulk load of hardware and be stuck with it three years down the line, when there will be a slew of new hardware with better features,” he said.

“We can easily migrate to new services and not worry about having an infrastructure which has a mix of legacy and new tools.”

Microsoft has also saved the team money: “We have been on Azure for 18 months now and have had four price cuts. We expect more as the cloud price wars between Amazon and Google and Microsoft continues.”

The team overcame its storage challenges with Azure cloud using SSD-backed storage arrays and D-series virtual machines (VMs).

"Having platform-based encoding that grows with us is a massive benefit. It allows Blinkbox to develop new services, such as streaming Dolby 5.1 and HD content," he said.

“But the biggest benefit of the cloud, to me, is opportunity cost. My guys are saving time on managing IT kit and spending time upskilling and building in automation. They are not just fixing IT anymore but moving IT forward with newer capabilities.”

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