Case study: Sky News turns to Red Hat for IT upgrade

To ensure the resiliency of its operations, Sky News has deployed Red Hat Enterprise Virtualisation and Red Hat Satellite in two datacentres

The news never stops and Sky News must ensure its systems are always available and adaptable for changes to service provision.

To ensure the scalability and resiliency of operations, the news organisation has deployed Red Hat Enterprise Virtualisation and Red Hat Satellite in two datacentres. The upgrade to IT infrastructure allows the firm to deliver flexible broadcasting and publishing.

Sky News is a 24-hour, multi-media news channel, providing audiences with the latest updates across a wide range of platforms, including television, online and mobile. It currently serves an audience of around 107 million people.

“Because we’re running a 24/7 operation, and have to get the news out there as fast as we can, systems must be up all of the time,” says Sky News project team leader James Murphy.

“We never know when news is going to break, so even scheduled downtime isn’t an option. And we have to cope with very uneven traffic flows because a major piece of breaking news can happen at any time, resulting in huge, unanticipated peaks that we have to handle."

Until May 2012, Sky News used a centralised platform. As it ran the content publishing system that broadcast and delivered real-time news feeds, the media organisation shared resources with other systems. The centralised architecture made it hard for the IT team to offer assurance around resiliency and scalability for publishing.

Added pressure came in the form of attempts to roll out new platforms and services, where changes to the system could be a lengthy and complicated process. “We decided that that a re-platforming exercise was the answer to the challenges we were facing,” says Murphy.

“If we could rebuild the underpinning infrastructure for the Sky News publishing system as a virtualised environment, we knew we’d have the flexibility we needed to grow the service, deal with fluctuations in traffic and improve resiliency – all at the same time.”

Sharing workload across back-to-back datacentres

Murphy and his team at Sky News took a novel approach to re-platforming and virtualisation. Instead of a conventional active/standby setup, where one datacentre acts as the primary run-time environment and the other as a disaster recovery site, Murphy and his team planned to run two datacentres back-to-back.

All the things that we struggled with, when we were using a complicated shared platform, we don’t struggle with anymore

James Murphy, Sky News

The workload of the publishing system is now shared across both datacentres. The approach creates free capacity to handle traffic peaks and satisfies disaster recovery requirements. “This was a step into the unknown,” says Murphy, reflecting on the decision to take an innovative strategy.

“At first, we weren’t even sure if that kind of approach could work for us, but a more conventional approach wasn’t going to match Sky News’ particular requirements. We did consider an active/standby setup, using virtualisation technology from another supplier, but quickly realised it wouldn’t allow us to hit the high-availability targets we needed.”

The Red Hat team built a prototype of the back-to-back architecture, enabling Sky News to thoroughly test the new concept before deployment. The management capabilities from Red Hat Satellite also enabled Sky News to move its IT efforts away from people-intensive tasks.

A big advantage with the new environment is that Red Hat Satellite automates many management tasks that would have previously required manual intervention by systems administrators. “With Red Hat Satellite, our team has far less to manage manually, with a lot of routine systems administration work carried out automatically,” says Murphy.

“And we’ve solved a lot of the challenges that we were experiencing in terms of stability. All the things that we struggled with, when we were using a complicated shared platform, we don’t struggle with anymore.”

A system to evolve in line with audience and service changes

Perhaps the most important benefit of the new virtualised environment for Sky News’ content publishing system is that Murphy can change his centre of management. His team now devotes more time to ensuring the system grows and evolves in line with changes to audiences and services.

With Red Hat Enterprise Virtualisation and Red Hat Satellite, Sky News’ team can launch virtual machines to take advantage of opportunities in the market. In short, the business has confidence the firm’s IT infrastructure will cope with increases in web traffic.

“Because traffic is up, we’re launching new services and we’re extending our services to new platforms, so there’s a lot of pressure,” says Murphy. “But we can just spin up new virtual machines to take advantage of new opportunities in the market and we know that the environment we have is more than capable of hosting them.”

The publishing system is broken down into a large number of discrete areas of function, each held in its own virtual machine. “This highly granular approach makes it easier to identify and fix problems and introduce entirely new areas of function,” says Murphy.

A virtualised environment to take advantage of new ideas

“Also, if an area of the system needs to scale because it’s struggling under a heavy load, then we can easily replicate the virtual machines – multiple times if necessary.” Above all, the virtualised environment has cut the time it takes for Sky News to take advantage of new ideas.

The amount of help and support we received from Red Hat gave us the confidence to move forward with our virtualisation project

James Murphy, Sky News

“Our speed of change used to be measured in months. Since deploying Red Hat, it’s measured in weeks and even days – making us more responsive, not just to breaking news stories and world events, but to changes in market and audience demands, too,” says Murphy.

“Working with Red Hat really was a true partnership. The amount of help and support we received from Red Hat gave us the confidence to move forward with our virtualisation project, even though it was different from most other companies’ approaches.”

Red Hat general manager for virtualisation and OpenStack Radhesh Balakrishnan also recognises the power of the partnership. He says the novel approach to virtualisation has provided a means for Sky News to take advantage of leading-edge technology in order to meet fast-changing business demands.

“We are pleased to work with Sky News and combine the functionality of Red Hat Enterprise Virtualisation and Red Hat Satellite to power an infrastructure designed to meet their growing needs," he says.

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