About News UK
News Corp UK has been producing newspapers since 1787 and today reaches more than 10 million readers through publications such as The Sun, The Times, and The Sunday Times. The company has pioneered the use of technology in the newspaper industry, first by launching tablet apps and installing pay walls (for subscriber-only access to content), and now by streamlining enterprise operations. The company employs about 3,500 people, 400 of them in its IT department.
News UK operates in a highly competitive environment, publishing 2.4 million physical newspapers and updating all of its digital products each day without fail. Maintaining its pace is no small feat: delays of even a few minutes during the printing process can cost the publisher thousands of sales. The company also needs to be able to quickly develop new digital editions and services without delays or constraints in provisioning computing or storage resources. “If we don’t innovate quickly and produce digital alternatives that people will subscribe to, we’ll go out of business,” says Chris Birch, IT director.
Before migrating to Amazon Web Services (AWS), News UK ran six physical data centers that had approximately 200 servers and another 2,000 virtual production servers. The publisher initially used AWS when developing the control system to manage subscribers’ access to digital content. Making that transition in a traditional way would have required three to six months to procure and build infrastructure before development could begin. For its subscription offerings to work properly, News UK needed to begin developing immediately, so it chose AWS.
The success of that project led News UK to decide to migrate its enterprise applications to the cloud, so that it could initiate new development projects immediately, rather than waiting three to six months to provision and set up hardware. The publisher runs the following workloads in the cloud:
Fonts server for newspaper production
OneVision Asura for converting files for newspaper and advertising production
Oracle Enterprise Manager for development and quality assurance
SAP BusinessObjects Server for business intelligence reporting
SAP Governance, Risk and Compliance (GRC) application to manage GRC
Secure Envoy for authentication
Oracle backups for SAP and CHP (the newsroom’s imaging database)
The Times archive application
Domain controllers and LDAP capability
Zabbix for monitoring servers and applications
Configurations for Amazon Virtual Private Cloud (Amazon VPC) and security groups
Migrating its enterprise applications to the cloud meant finding a provider that could meet the publisher’s exacting standards, including agility, reliability, and a highly accessible technical account management team that provides strong support services. And News UK’s deadline-driven, round-the-clock business added another challenge: the need for immediate and customized responses to issues.
Why Amazon Web Services
The publisher had already realized several benefits of using AWS in its digital products, including the ability to use horizontal scaling to handle peaks in website traffic. When it came to its enterprise application migration, News UK found that AWS offered agility and maturity that other cloud providers did not. “AWS offers unique capability for handling the sorts of workloads we wanted to put in the cloud,” says Mike Wedderburn-Clarke, infrastructure architect at News UK. “In particular, the AWS focus on overall security, the ability to isolate systems from the Internet while running in the cloud, and the ability to encrypt data with our own managed keys addresses our requirements better than alternative solutions.” As a result, News UK was able to move 4 of its 6 datacenters to the AWS Cloud.
News UK also chose AWS for the customised and proactive nature of AWS Enterprise Support service. Traditional enterprise software was written to work on mainframes, with code written in the 1960s and keyed to certain CPUs. It can be challenging to transition systems between two computing models that were designed and built decades apart. “We needed help overcoming specific problems, like getting legacy software to take advantage of modern features like Auto Scaling,” Birch says. “AWS was right there with its high-touch support, providing assistance every step of the way.”
When News UK opens a support case, the AWS Enterprise Support team engages to review the system and API calls and provides insight into ways to improve usage or revise code, all at first point of contact. All support activities are coordinated by a Technical Account Manager (TAM) who ensures that the News UK requirements are fully met. “You typically do not get this level of focused and personalized support in the IT industry,” says Wedderburn-Clarke.
Direct and immediate access to support is critical in News UK’s demanding operating environment. Birch cites IT service issues that could prevent publication of physical print titles and digital products, materially impacting readers, subscribers and advertisers. “Access to highly skilled engineers, backed up by a TAM who fully understands our needs, is the type of high-touch relationship that we really value with AWS,” Birch says. “Without that, we run the risk of not being able to print the newspaper.”
News UK formats and prints the newspaper in the evening and early morning of each day—which are also typical maintenance hours for servers. PDFs of each page are created and run through the publisher’s pre-publication software, Asura, which optimizes the PDFs for publication. Then the printing house creates plates from each PDF so that it can print millions of copies of the newspaper. It’s an intricate process that cannot be disrupted—and if servers are rebooted during that time, the results could be disastrous. “We wouldn’t be able to put the newspaper out,” Birch says. “We have a unique window of time to print the newspaper and distribute it every day. For every minute of delay, we lose thousands of newspaper sales—so it’s absolutely crucial that we stay up and running during that time.” News UK worked with the AWS Support team to ensure that multiple Availability Zones were ready to take on the workload, providing resilient, problem-free operations for the publisher and keeping News UK’s production and publication operations on schedule.
The company also leveraged the benefits of Auto Scaling to automate the creation and management of Windows Server instances on Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2). Unhealthy systems are automatically identified, killed, and rebuilt without manual intervention. “We are doing more with approximately the same number of people. We’ve got an incredibly small, focused team, and we are able to deliver quickly,” Wedderburn-Clarke says.
Moving to AWS has increased the publisher’s speed and agility, enabling News UK to initiate projects on the same day they’re approved, rather than waiting for months to provision hardware. During Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee in 2013, the marketing and editorial department asked the IT department to create a commemorative digital souvenir edition—four days before the event itself. “We wouldn’t have been able to do it with our previous data centers,” Birch says, “but because we use AWS, we were very relaxed about it. We were able to get it done in very little time.”
The ability to rapidly create development and testing environments with AWS has also increased agility, even compared with well-optimised virtual infrastructure. “Using AWS gives us the ability to experiment and spin up projects, particularly commercial websites, and to test them without making a massive investment in infrastructure,” Birch says.
The publisher’s workflows and quality controls have improved as well. With reduced costs to run its infrastructure, News UK now tests all changes to production systems in pre-production environments first, which previous capacity constraints prevented.
Paying only for the computing resources used saves money and reduces the need for large internal support teams. “At a high level, we’re now enabling the business with no constraints. We’re giving them everything they need,” Birch says. “Because we use AWS, we see massive savings in being able to get to market quicker than our competition. We also don’t have developers waiting for new infrastructure to be provisioned. It’s much more efficient.”
Leveraging AWS Support helps News UK plan its architecture efficiently. When News UK is considering migrating an existing solution or trying out a new one, it sketches out initial ideas with AWS. “Working with AWS Support saves us both costs and time—having that high-touch relationship with AWS early in the planning means that we can tap into that broad knowledge base that AWS engineers have. It helps us develop projects faster and keep services more highly available—above five nines. AWS Support helps us design our apps in line with AWS principles for resilience.”
Regular meetings with the AWS Technical Account Manager also enable News UK to implement best practices. For example, monthly meetings cover incident and resource analysis as well as problem management to prevent issues. “Amazon is keen to help us solve challenges,” says Birch. “If we’re going to be in business with a public cloud provider, they must have an enterprise level of support that’s at least equivalent to historic enterprise support or to Amazon’s support—our new benchmark.”