Modernizing with AWS

How Pacific Magazines changed cloud providers to improve performance, increase scale, and drive innovation with AWS

Pacific Magazines (“Pacific”), the home of leading publications like marie claire, allrecipes.com, and Better Homes and Gardens, is in the middle of a transformation. The company has been seeking to move from simply publishing great content, as important as that is, to also enabling their employees to develop bold ideas. To achieve this, since 2016 the company has been moving their operations to the cloud.

Unfortunately, Pacific experienced outages and slow load times with their previous cloud provider. As a result, engineers were forced to focus on stabilizing the platform rather than on innovation. Working with AWS partner Kablamo, Pacific migrated to an AWS infrastructure that includes Amazon Elastic Container Service (Amazon ECS) and Amazon CloudFront. With AWS, Pacific withstood a 500% spike during a DDoS attack, increased availability to 99.99%, and cut hosting costs by 16% while expanding audience traffic by 24%.

Working with AWS, said Roberts, Pacific is better able to “foster a culture of collaboration and innovation that is driving new product development.” 

Grappling with growth

In 2006, Pacific split their print business from their digital assets in order to focus on their print business, but by 2016 the company had regained control of the digital assets and moved them to a non-AWS cloud provider. As Pacific engaged content creators, designers, engineers, and data scientists to create and promote premium content, readership expanded by more than 70%.

What was less fantastic, however, was that the resulting heavy web traffic strained Pacific’s cloud infrastructure limits. “We were focused on building audience and product,” notes Will Everitt, Pacific’s Director of Digital Product and Technology. “This effort was hugely more successful than projected. That’s a great problem to have, but we also started to see platform instability.” The problems persisted, with frequent outages and slow load times leading to increased page abandonment, reduced engagement, and decreased SEO authority.

These problems threatened to undermine the company’s reputation, chip away at audience numbers, and reduce value for advertisers. Pacific’s engineering teams, meanwhile, were forced to spend all their time and then some, often working after hours, just to keep the platform stable.

Something had to change.

A platform for innovation

Pacific had previous experience with AWS, having run several product review sites with independent code bases on AWS, and was interested in switching from their existing cloud provider. Together with Kablamo, an AWS APN Advanced Consulting Partner, Pacific began to migrate to an AWS infrastructure that includes Amazon ECS and Amazon CloudFront. Kablamo started by helping Pacific move several of their largest brands, and then provided knowledge transfer through training, documentation, and defined processes so that the company could migrate the rest on their own.

The switch to AWS has been a game changer for Pacific.

“With our previous cloud provider, we had to postpone introducing new products and features because we had to focus on simply stabilizing the system,” Everitt says. “Now that we’re on AWS, our engineers are free to research and evaluate new technology and pursue their own projects instead of firefighting and answering after-hours calls.” Such capabilities, he continues, give Pacific “a true competitive edge.”

This edge is both a current and future advantage, says Everitt: “We knew moving to AWS would not only solve our immediate pain points around scalability and stability but also enable the serverless architectures we had in mind for the planned evolution of the platform.” Importantly, he stresses, moving to AWS put Pacific’s engineering team into a position to truly partner with their business colleagues to meet their CEO’s ambitions to have a truly innovative company: “How seriously could the business side take us as digital strategy setters when we spent so much time just keeping the infrastructure platform up and running? Now that we’re on AWS, we’re much better positioned to play a central role in setting strategy once again. Everyone at Pacific Magazines— whether on the technical or business side — agrees that by moving to AWS we are effectively platformed for the future.”

Preparing for the unexpected

Early in the company’s migration to AWS, they got to see whether AWS could live up to expectations. Someone launched a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack with SQL injection against Pacific’s web infrastructure. Just a few weeks earlier, this 500% “Mount Everest-sized spike” would have crippled them, declares Everitt, but because Pacific was now relying on AWS Auto Scaling to monitor and respond to changing capacity needs, “It was barely a blip.” As he described, “AWS Auto Scaling automatically scaled up until we mitigated the attack with a simple rule change in AWS Web Application Firewall (AWS WAF). With zero downtime and no effect on user experience, we avoided revenue losses and damage to our reputation with readers and advertisers.”

Beyond what became a “successful performance test,” one of the most important improvements Pacific has seen since moving to AWS is faster page loads, a technical benefit with business ramifications. With AWS, Pacific is beating their benchmarks by 21%, which in turn helps them attract more of the organic search engine traffic vital to further expanding their readership. This has led to a 24% increase in traffic to Pacific’s brands.

Once that new traffic arrives, faster page speed helps Pacific retain and better engage those readers as well. “Running our sites on AWS helps us deliver payloads in optimal time, which is especially important on mobile devices,” says Everitt. “Since migrating to AWS, we’ve seen page abandonments decrease by 5% and clicks on recommended content increase by 8%.”

Not only has performance improved, but the cost to support Pacific’s infrastructure has declined. Since the move, there have been no after-hours support calls for engineers, and Pacific has seen average availability across all their digital products rise from 99.75 to 99.99%.  Because Pacific no longer has to overprovision to guard against spikes, they’ve been able to cut overall hosting costs by 16%, even as they’re able to do much more with their new platform.

This modernization with AWS hasn’t stopped with the migration of existing infrastructure. Since migrating to AWS, Pacific has also started working with a range of AWS services to build innovative new applications, including an automatic video captioning solution to include captions on Pacific’s video assets. This Pacific application uses Amazon Comprehend for natural language processing, Amazon Transcribe for speech recognition, Amazon Translate to understand multiple languages, and Amazon SageMaker to create a machine learning model. By working with AWS, Pacific has freed up budget and resources to focus on innovation, and is finding the tools they need to innovate among AWS services.

More to come

To see how your organization can, like Pacific, save money while driving innovation, please continue to join me as I highlight companies on their modernization journeys onto AWS. As you do, I hope you’ll also ask the question, what’s your plan for moving off Microsoft Azure? Or off Oracle? Or whatever old-guard technology keeps you from modernizing to better care for your customers?

Please consider letting AWS help you assess how your company can get the most out of cloud. Join all the AWS customers who trust us to run their most important applications in the best cloud. To have us create an assessment for your Microsoft Azure applications (or all your applications), email us at WhatsYourModernizationPlan@amazon.com, and please consider joining the conversation using the #WhatsYourModernizationPlan hashtag.

To learn more on modernizing Windows Server or SQL Server, visit Windows on AWS.

Matt Asay

Matt Asay

Matt Asay (pronounced "Ay-see") has been involved in open source and all that it enables (cloud, machine learning, data infrastructure, mobile, etc.) for nearly two decades, working for a variety of open source companies and writing regularly for InfoWorld and TechRepublic. You can follow him on Twitter (@mjasay).