Guardian News & Media (GNM) is the publisher of the national United Kingdom newspapers The Guardian and The Observer, the owner of digital products including Soulmates and GuardianJobs, the international Guardian Weekly, and the Guardian.co.uk Web site. GNM’s Technology Development group uses the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) for a variety of projects—most significantly for its Apple iPhone application and the Guardian News & Media Content API. In both cases, the Web Operations group uses the AWS cloud to provide the front tier of the application.

As GNM launched new online services such as its Content API, they encountered the need to quickly and reliably scale in response to hard-to-predict changes in demand caused by new applications and developers joining the network. With outside business running applications on the Open Platform, GNM had limited insight into the scaling issues that these new businesses bring to the platform—in contrast to the relatively predictable demand growth for GNM’s own products.

GNM turned to Amazon Web Services (AWS) for a reliable infrastructure that can change in scale quickly, both up and down. “We use AWS when we are uncertain about demand and are unwilling to commit to hardware purchase until we have a clearer idea of usage and performance patterns…with the Open Platform launch coming up, we are in a position to rapidly scale the number of instances to suit the launch demand and scale back post-launch and to suit demand thereafter,” says GNM’s Director of Technology Development, Mike Bracken. Among cloud alternatives, Bracken found that “the standard and transparent terms of service and pricing reduce the effort required to deal with AWS as a business compared with other solutions.”

The Guardian Architecture Diagram

Figure 1. Guardian News & Media Architecture on AWS

Bracken’s group has automated the launching of its servers in the cloud using shell scripts and Puppet, a tool for configuring new Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) instances. The group has two Amazon Machine Images (AMIs)—32 and 64 bit—and provides user data when creating each instance in order to determine which Puppet manifests to download and apply to create the right type of server.

GNM measures the savings from using AWS in terms of reduced lead times. It takes Bracken’s group less than 10 minutes to set up a new instance in Amazon EC2 and perhaps another 20 minutes to connect to the infrastructure and build the server type, for a total lead time of half an hour. This compares to a possible three weeks for hardware to be delivered and installed plus additional time for budget approval.

Having deployed multiple applications on AWS, Bracken looks forward to increasingly sophisticated cloud deployments in the future, including Auto Scaling for GNM’s Open Platform, which has potentially unpredictable demand. Bracken is also investigating the AWS private cloud/VPN solution, which completely isolates Amazon EC2 instances from the Internet at large. His ideal private cloud will allow secure management and data access to GNM’s infrastructure via VPN, but also have the EC2 instances be Internet-facing for client traffic.

With GNM’s success on the AWS cloud, Bracken sees a future in which media companies rely more and more on cloud computing: “Longer term, we believe that companies such as ours will divest themselves of all infrastructure in favor of third parties. Standards and interoperability enabling easier movement between providers will hasten that day.”

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