About The Seattle Times
Founded in 1896, The Seattle Times is a family-owned news media business serving the Pacific Northwest. The Seattle Times is the winner of 10 Pulitzer Prizes, journalism’s highest honor, and two prestigious Online Journalism Awards for its digital news coverage. Seattletimes.com attracts nearly 7 million unique visitors a month, making it the biggest local digital network in the region. The Seattle Times print edition is the second largest newspaper on the West Coast, setting the news agenda for Seattle and the region.
After maintaining on-premises hardware and custom publishing software for nearly two decades, The Seattle Times sought to migrate its website publishing to a contemporary content management platform. To avoid the costs of acquiring and configuring new hardware infrastructure and the required staff to maintain it, the company initially chose a fully managed hosting vendor. But after several months, The Times' software engineering team found it had sacrificed flexibility and agility in exchange for less maintenance responsibility. As the hosted platform struggled with managing traffic under a vastly fluctuating load, The Seattle Times team was hamstrung in its ability to scale up to meet customer demand.
Tom Bain, the software engineering manager overseeing the migration effort, says, "We had a fairly standard architecture in mind when we set out to do the migration, and we encouraged our vendor to adapt to our needs, but they struggled with the idea of altering their own business model to satisfy our very unique hosting needs."
Why Amazon Web Services
To address these core scalability concerns, The Seattle Times engineering team considered several alternative hosting options, including self-hosting on premises, more flexible managed hosting options, and various cloud providers. The team concluded that the available cloud options provided the needed flexibility, appropriate architecture, and desired cost savings. The company ultimately chose Amazon Web Services (AWS), in part because of the maturity of the product offering and, most significantly, the auto-scaling capabilities built into the service. The Seattle Times' new software is built on the LAMP stack, and the added benefits of native, Linux-based cloud hosting made the most sense when choosing a new vendor.
The Seattle Times developed a proof-of-concept and implementation plan, which was reviewed by a team from AWS Support. “They looked over our architecture and said, ‘Here are some things that we recommend you do, some best practices, and some lessons learned,’ ” says Rob Grutko, director of technology for The Seattle Times. “They were very helpful in making sure we were production ready.”
After implementing the desired system architecture and vetting the chosen components and configuration with AWS, The Times deployed its new system in just six hours. The website moved to the AWS platform between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. and final testing was completed by 5 a.m. — in time for the next news day.
How Seattle Times Uses AWS
Seattletimes.com is now hosted in an Amazon Virtual Private Cloud (Amazon VPC), a logically isolated section of the AWS cloud. It uses Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) for resizable compute capacity and Amazon Elastic Block Store (Amazon EBS) for persistent block-level storage volumes. Amazon Relational Database Service (Amazon RDS) serves as a scalable cloud-based database, Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) provides a fully redundant infrastructure for storing and retrieving data, and Amazon Route 53 offers a highly available and scalable Domain Name System (DNS) web service.
The Times is using Amazon CloudFront in front of several Amazon S3 buckets to distribute a huge collection of photo imagery. The combination of Amazon CloudFront and Amazon S3 is used to embed photos into news stories distributed to The Times readers with low latency and high transfer speeds. Additionally, Amazon ElastiCache serves as an in-memory “cache in the cloud” in The Times’ new configuration. The Times is also using AWS Lambda to resize images for viewing on different devices such as desktop computers, tablets, and smartphones.
With AWS, The Seattle Times can now automatically scale up very rapidly to accommodate spikes in website traffic when big stories break, and scale down during slower traffic periods to reduce costs. “Auto-scaling is really the clincher to this,” Grutko says. “With AWS, we can now serve our online readers with speed and efficiency, scaling to meet demand and delivering a better reader experience.’’
Moreover, news images can now be rapidly resized for different viewing environments, allowing breaking-news stories to reach readers faster. “AWS Lambda provides us with extremely fast image resizing,” Grutko says. “Before, if we needed an image resized in 10 different sizes, it would happen serially. With AWS Lambda, all 10 images get created at the same time, so it’s quite a bit faster and it involves no server maintenance.”
Rather than relying on a hosting service to fix inevitable systems issues, The Times now has complete control over its back-end environment, enabling it to troubleshoot problems as soon as they occur. “When an issue happens, we can go under the hood and troubleshoot to get around nearly any problem,” says Grutko. “It’s our environment, and we control it.”
When the company encounters a problem that it can’t solve, it relies on AWS Support. “Our on-boarding experience was quite good with the AWS support team,” says Miles Van Pelt, senior development engineer at The Seattle Times. “It really felt like they went out of their way to answer our questions and research topics that we couldn't readily find in their extensive documentation.”
By choosing AWS, The Seattle Times is now better positioned to deliver in its pursuit of being a leading-edge digital news media company. “By moving to AWS, we’ve regained the agility and flexibility we need to support the company’s journalistic mission without incurring the expense and demands required of a pile of physical hardware,” says Grutko .
“With AWS, we can now serve our online readers with speed and efficiency, scaling to meet demand and delivering a better reader experience.”
Rob Grutko, Director of Technology, The Seattle Times