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Australian real estate company goes all in on public cloud

Australian real estate marketing company moves systems into the cloud to help it compete during a property boom

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: CW ANZ: CW ANZ: August 2016

Online Australian real estate marketing business Domain Group has gone all in on public cloud, as it looks to respond to a national property boom and increasingly competitive market with a faster-responding digital platform.

Domain Group is Australia's second-largest real estate marketing business and is owned by Fairfax Media. It goes head to head with the largest real estate marketing outfit REA Group, majority owned by Fairfax arch-rival News Corp Australia.

It has become a key asset for Fairfax and is valued north of AUD 1bn. Domain moving parts include a home listings portal at domain.com.au; a commercial property portal; a customer relationship management (CRM) and listings management system for estate agencies called My Desktop; and a property data business called APM Pricefinder, which models projected values for clients.

Domain’s name comes from Fairfax’s brand for its newspaper real estate sections, and the operation was formed in 1999 as a response to revenues from print real estate classified ads beginning to fall to internet ads.

The Domain platform was first built as a classic application service provider-style website, CTO Mark Cohen tells Computer Weekly.

“It was just taking ads and getting them on the internet, and it then evolved into a paid model and grew up and became a pretty big beast. But at its core it had this fundamental monolith which was based on very, very old code,” he says.

The site was migrated from its original ASP structure to being based on Microsoft’s .Net Framework in the early 2000s. Cohen says the move to .Net was good for growing Domain, but the platform remained a big monolith running in a datacentre.

Read more about cloud computing in Australia

Meanwhile, the Australian property market began to boom, especially in the east coast cities of Sydney and Melbourne – and the strain began to show on the Domain platform.

“Fast-forward to a time when Domain really started to take off. There were a number of things the planners wanted to do,” says Cohen. “We wanted to get out of datacentres, not manage infrastructure, and enable continuous integration and continuous deployment.”

At the time, Domain was running on virtualised hardware at a Fairfax datacentre.

“When we were running in the datacentre, if we wanted to spin up new infrastructure we had to get business cases approved,” explains Cohen.

“You would have to get capex [capital expenditure] approved and then you would be billed, and it could take up to six weeks. Even if they already had the compute capacity, the process was the same,” he continues. “So you would have to do a business case, go through the whole Fairfax approval chain and they would charge your business unit the cost of the infrastructure. That process was very, very slow.”

Public cloud project

Domain was under pressure to get new digital products, services and features into the market quickly, and wanted to be able to implement continuous integration with an automated path from development into production.

“We wanted to be able to blow servers up and reprovision them on the fly, and it doesn’t really work that way when you are running on virtualised infrastructure,” says Cohen.

The group also wanted to get into a system of using microservice architecture where everything is built on standalone services. “Those services require a proliferation of really small virtual machines as opposed to what you do in a datacentre, which is having fewer, bigger machines, either virtualised or physical hardware,” explains Cohen.

The Domain executive team, product team and finance team really understood what we were trying to do
Mark Cohen, Domain Group

The decision to move all in to a public cloud service was made, and Domain selected Amazon Web Services (AWS) for the job. The public cloud project received broad management support inside Domain and about one-third of the tech team was committed to the six-month project.

“The Domain executive team, product team and finance team really understood what we were trying to do,” says Cohen.

The Domain tech team set about ringfencing its datacentre operations and migrating everything over to AWS. Domain had to work closely with AWS architects, particularly on migrating its primary database on Microsoft SQL Server into the AWS cloud. In late 2013 – when the move to AWS began – this was a rare and tricky procedure for a business the size of Domain.

“After we did it we had calls from a lot of companies who are in datacentres trying to move to AWS and facing the same problems,” recalls Cohen.

Moving to microservices

During the migration, Domain set itself up for the future by moving to microservices. “The core was still there, but we built all the new features as microservices,” says Cohen.

These microservices included a login and authentication service which can be shared around the entire Domain business, such as logging in agents as well as clients of the Pricefinder property valuation business. So far, Domain has upwards of 40 microservices handling everything from image management to search.

Before moving to a microservice architecture, Domain would have to re-release the entire sight to build in changes, now it does releases just for the changed microservice pieces.

“The releases now are much more frequent and much smaller – 40 releases in a week is not uncommon,” says Cohen.

The other benefit is that when pieces of the platform break, Domain rolls forwards with a fix, not back. “You fix it and push an update instead of rolling back what’s broken and fixing the whole site,” adds Cohen.

Moving to the cloud has brought a range of benefits for Domain, including faster deployment of new applications and websites, quicker server response times and more efficient infrastructure scaling. Domain is moving to an autoscaling model.

“Our decision-making process is now much leaner because we don’t have to go through the whole capex process,” says Cohen.

Domain can configure a fresh instance of Windows in 10 minutes, and spin up a copy of its production environment to test applications against user demands. User web page response is 50% faster, and Domain can now dedicate more staff to building features instead of tasks such as changing disks and upgrading memory.

Application availability has risen to 99.95% and delivered an 83% decrease in after-hours service calls to the technology team.

Finally, Domain has learnt from major AWS outages and is changing to a multi-region scheme to lessen the outage risk and improve security.

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