'I have never had a supplier ring me up and say that...' One company's lessons from the cloud

AWS Enterprise Summit in London hears how some of the world’s largest companies now see the cloud as the future for all of their operations.
Written by Colin Barker, Contributor

In 2010, The Sunday Times was one of the first newspapers to announce that it was going to stop giving away its content for free online and would put up a paywall. The change meant building a system that would allow the company to manage access to its digital products for readers that wanted to pay for an online subscription.

That created something of a problem, according to Chris Birch, the IT director of News UK — the company formerly known as News International — which publishes The Times, The Sunday Times and The Sun.

"The business moved very quickly and within a couple of months we had 100,000 to 150,000 customers reaching for their tablet or whatever every Sunday morning. So we had thousands of customers reaching for their tablet in the morning and the system we had in place was limited to around 700 transactions a second," he told the recent Amazon Web Services (AWS) Enterprise Summit in London.

"Clearly it was not a position for us to be in and traditionally I would have gone to the CFO and asked for somewhere around $1m to buy an infrastructure and more software and more 'tin' in the datacentre," he said — a lot of expense for a system which might only hit peak usage between 8am and 10am on a Sunday morning.

Birch had to find a system that could scale automatically and looked at Amazon. "The first iteration took about eight weeks to build because we did not have to build an extension on the datacentre. Before that, it would have taken about 24 weeks to install the infrastructure needed and that was just to handle that sort of 'peaky' demand."

News UK now has a cloud-based system that can automatically adjust. As demand builds up to the early morning peak, it can scale accordingly to allow the company to handle the 450 million transactions it now sees a month.

"In my career to that point, I was stuck in detail like do we have enough kilowatts to run the systems, is the smoke detection system up to scratch and so forth. Now that was the epiphany moment for me. I could see how I could use Amazon Web Services to do exactly the same thing in a tenth of the time, at a miniscule fraction of the cost that it would have taken before that," he said.

That was late in 2010 and early 2011. Since then News UK has moved more systems into the cloud. Choosing Gmail in 2011 allows the company to avoid "the distraction" of having to keep an email system going. Similarly, for News UK's customer service system, Birch turned to Salesforce, which can handle all of the publisher's customer data, down to the level of detail where every single customer transaction is now logged.

Instead of old, hand-crafted proprietary systems, the company now favours simple, off-the-shelf applications.

"You have to understand that this represented a big change for News International, where we have got to a stage where we now have customers and we know something about them, whereas before we just had anonymous buyers of newspapers," he said.

"That has driven the attention of all our systems guys towards AWS and away from having to support a lot of 'tin' in our datacentres. The datacentres have been driven on a parallel track where they are shrinking."

Moving to the cloud has also lead to one other unexpected situation: lower bills. "Another new phenomenon is when Amazon rang me up and said because of changes in licensing they were cutting my costs by [$30,000] a month," he said. "In all my years in IT I have never had a supplier ring me up and say that. It never happens. Now we can invest that cash into new product development and turn it into revenue." 

The evolution continues and in December last year Birch started to prepare to move the company's enterprise systems — ERP, logistics, distribution, manufacturing systems — to the cloud. The shift was no small task, given the hardware systems involved, many of which were designed 30 years ago.

"Now we are moving to what we call C3, which is based on two 10GB AWS circuits for each datacentre with a security wrapper around that," Birch said. "Last month we went online with The Times archive (through AWS). That was 9TB of data that we pumped across to Amazon and we also used the Amazon search data. Now that is going to cost us $2,000 a year where it used to occupy two racks of systems across two datacentres that I had to keep replicated and all that stuff. I don't have to do any of that now."

The aim is to move 75 percent of News UK datacentres into the cloud. "By doing this we free-up around $100m in datacentre charges, rent and so on," the IT director said.  

Last November Birch did a project with Amazon Professional Services and others as a reassessment of IT around News Corporation. The company wanted to know the size of the IT estate worldwide; what it found was over 3,200 applications and which Birch thinks relates to about 13,000 servers across News Corp worldwide, 6PB of data in 46 datacentres.

"Integrating that infrastructure into the cloud is quite a big job," Birch said with some understatement.

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