realestate.com.au moves out of its backyard

Online property listing group realestate.com.au is examining a range of IT initiatives to ensure its Web sites can cope with the company's expansion into international markets.
Written by Renai LeMay, Contributor
Online property listing group realestate.com.au is examining a range of IT initiatives to ensure its Web sites can cope with the company's expansion into international markets.

On Monday the company revealed it had outsourced monitoring of its approximately 200 Web servers in Melbourne and London to local hosting specialist Hostworks in a three-year deal. But there is more to come.

"One of the things we're looking at is getting global load balancing right," realestate.com.au chief information officer Chris Vulovic told ZDNet Australia via telephone yesterday.

"So how do we deliver our images globally, how do we do replication, also how do we do global load balancing around our data centres so that we can do traffic shaping and that kind of thing."

Vulovic is looking at options such as DNS and content caching with groups like UltraDNS and Akamai.

Realestate.com.au certainly has a substantial amount of Web traffic to balance between three data centres in Melbourne and one in London, with the company's family of sites attracting a total of more than 5.2 million visitors in July alone. "We've got a couple of terabytes of images," said Vulovic.

The CIO said the thorny global issues had only raised their head with realestate.com.au's expansion from an Australia/New Zealand base into the international and United Kingdom markets.

"We haven't had to deal with it before," she said. "It's been relatively easy, it's been more of a 'how do you load balance within your own data centre?'".

"But now that we've got four data centres, including one in the UK ... that's what we're really working on, how do you run a global operation."

Vulovic said a lot of online media companies didn't yet have the same problem. "Geographically speaking, they deal with content that's within one data centre, within one geography -- for example Australia."

Search giant Google had probably already solved some of these problems, acknowledged Vulovic. "But Google's not sharing with anybody how they solved it, that's for sure," she laughed.

Realestate.com.au is also differentiated from some other popular Web sites due to its highly redundant infrastructure, Vulovic said. The company has Melbourne data centres hosted with both MCI (now Verizon Business) and Telstra.

"If MCI goes down, Telstra takes over. It's automatic, we don't even need to worry about it. There aren't many Web sites out there that have dual data centres," said Vulovic.

When to outsource
While realestate.com.au has historically developed its own technology in-house using open source software such as Linux and mySQL and hosting its servers in co-location facilities, Vulovic said outsourcing further aspects of her group's IT operation remained an option.

She advised colleagues at other companies to consider their business needs carefully when considering an outsourcing move. "It comes down to, what are your internal core competencies, and how big of a company are you, what are you going to use," she said.

For example, Vulovic said with smaller operations it could make sense to look at managed services options for Web hosting.

"For a company like us, we develop all our application software in-house ... so what that means is that we have a lot of capability in-house to do things quickly," she said. "We don't pay any money for software, but there is an investment in staff at that point."

"But as a smaller organisation, if you don't have that staff internally then it absolutely makes sense to go with totally managed, because it's not a core competency, whereas for us it's a core competency."

"For a [smaller] company like that, I would definitely look at Hostworks, they're perfect for that," she said.

For example, realestate.com.au bought Accipter advertisement management software from Hostworks rather than having the hosting specialist provide it through an application service provider (ASP) arrangement, Vulovic said.

"We are a very very large Web site, we do probably three billion ads per month," she said. "So in that case it made a lot of sense for us to just host it internally and manage it, and not go with an ASP version."

Vulovic herself certainly has a large focus on taking care of her staff, with one of the main reasons for the Hostworks contract being the need to avoid burning out internal staff by making them work graveyard shifts to cover international outages.

"It is very hard to keep good staff, and so you have to think about: 'I've got really smart people, I don't want to bore them with monitoring things that aren't interesting,'" she said. "I want them to work on smart projects, and I don't want them getting up at three o'clock in the morning."

Working with an external provider for server monitoring would also tend to deliver a "more robust monitoring solution, because there is a commercial agreement in place", according to Vulovic.

The commercial agreement would force different thresholds of service to be strictly defined, according to the CIO. This would still occur with an internal solution, Vulovic said, "but when you're working with a commercial organisation it tends to go that step further."

Greater communication needed
Vulovic also encouraged her fellow CIOs to share their valuable knowledge with their peers. "I think that a lot of CIOs don't talk with each other," she said, noting she had personally bucked this trend by meeting some of her counterparts at other companies for lunch.

"I think CIOs should talk more. Because you don't have to solve every problem by yourself."

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