Lonely Planet turns a new page with cloud

Lonely Planet is driving old technology with new, as the company leverages its global cloud infrastructure to embark on its biggest publishing year ever.
Written by Leon Spencer, Contributor

Popular travel guide publisher Lonely Planet is expecting to release a record number of titles next year, and according to the company's online platform manager Darragh Kennedy, the book boost is in part thanks to its international cloud infrastructure.

In his presentation at the Amazon Web Services (AWS) Summit in Melbourne yesterday, Kennedy said that Lonely Planet now had about 500 titles in 17 languages, with guidebook sales well over the 120 million mark.

It might seem as though Kennedy is drawing a long bow equating the company's cloud infrastructure footprint with its production of physical books, but he believes that one does facilitate the other.

"We can move forward faster," Kennedy told ZDNet. "And it's not just about delivering digital products; it's also helping us to create our physical products quicker as well.

"We've got a whole range of amazing books we continue to produce — I think 2015 is going to be one of our largest ever print years, in terms of titles. We're continuously gaining marketshare. We're definitely grasping that marketshare and diversifying as well," he said.

While most publishers in Australia have struggled with the rise of ebooks, some have taken to the new opportunities with both hands, seeing a marked rise in electronic formats as physical book sales have declined.

Lonely Planet has not been entirely exempt from declining physical book sales. However, US tobacco billionaire Brad Kelley's NC2 Media company, which bought Lonely Planet from the BBC for US$77 million last year, has said that it wants to continue driving the print medium while also leveraging the growing potential for digital channels.

In an interview with travel news website Skift, Lonely Planet's post-sale chief operating officer and NC2 executive director Daniel Houghton said that the media company's primary interest in the company had been its online parts.

"We are incredibly excited about the potential for Lonely Planet's digital assets.," said Houghton. "Digital is such a dynamic space, and it will only become increasingly so as time goes on."

"Lonely Planet will continue to be committed to its roots in publishing and providing quality information to travellers around the world. We are committed to all mediums, and print will continue to be a part of the mix," he said.

However, in July last year the company reportedly cut up to 100 staff from its ranks, with most of the cuts coming from the company's book production department in Melbourne, which focuses on editing and laying out its physical books, according to Crikey.

Not only has the company's book production team been hit by the digital push, its move to the cloud has seen many of its IT infrastructure staff have to shift their focus to software development.

"You still need that infrastructure skill-set, but I think it's been bit of a change, especially for people that have an infrastructure background," said Kennedy. "It's more about software now. People need to be able to script, to write code."

Lonely Planet began its migration to the cloud in bits and pieces over two years ago, with the company eventually shifting all of its web services from on-premise VMware infrastructure to AWS cloud.

The company's production platform in Australia has resided entirely on AWS cloud for over a year, since "pretty much the day that they launched the Sydney datacentre", according to Kennedy.

Now, the company's digital operations are spread over at least three global regions, with its production team's systems deployed on AWS' Australian infrastructure, its consumer website lonelyplanet.com running out of a datacentre in the US, and other systems deployed on datacentres in Europe.

Kennedy said that, although the decision to deploy its various departments' systems in different regional areas is partially driven by latency issues, the company simply likes having its data close at hand to the teams using it.

"Because of cloud you can have different teams and they can control their own infrastructure, you don't have to have that central managed point," he said. "So our development team in Australia, it looks after its own entire infrastructure. For our team of developers, it's simply treated as part of their software stack."

The company's current operational structure, along with its utilisation of cloud infrastructure, allows it to be extremely agile, according to Kennedy, supporting continuous digital services delivery, and enabling quicker software build capabilities thanks to cross-team collaboration.

This mix allows the company to effectively use its already vast and growing digital content palette to drive its physical book production, inverting the traditional model where the printed product once determined what was offered in a digital format.

"Ebooks have been growing quite a lot. I think we've got over 400 ebooks; pretty much every print title we have is an ebook for now," said Kennedy. "What's been interesting is to see how the ebooks have advanced as well. Initially it was literally black and white print and that was it. Now, you've got integrated Google searches, and the ebooks have gained a lot of intelligence.

"People are very obsessed with digital and apps, and we have to deliver the medium that people want to read. Interestingly, the digital is helping us to make better print books as well because you're using that same platform and improving on it.

"But it's not just about creating a book and digitising it, it's about creating the content and then putting it on the media that we want, whether it's a book, or an app, or whatever," he said.

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