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Guardian News & Media Automates Subscription Fulfillment Using AWS Step Functions

2018

Guardian News and Media (GNM) is a London-based global media company and publisher of the Guardian and the Observer newspapers. The organization’s digital property, theguardian.com, is one of the largest English-speaking newspaper websites in the world. GNM has hundreds of thousands of print and digital subscribers across the globe.

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Developers do not have to be experts in workflow, and the developers who wrote the Lambda function can easily create the Step Functions workflow. We can put more developers on projects, and that will ultimately enable the creation of more internal solutions that will drive efficiency and productivity."

Paul Brown
Senior Developer Manager, Guardian News & Media

The Challenge

Seeking More Reliable Customer Subscription Processes

Each day, about 2,000 people across greater London depend on the timely delivery of Guardian and Observer newspapers to their doorsteps. And every week, 60,000 people worldwide expect the newspapers to arrive on time. But for the newspapers’ parent company, Guardian News & Media (GNM), making sure those papers arrived on time had become more challenging as the number of subscribers grew. That’s because the GNM development team relied on disparate distributed systems to store customer data. “Orchestrating the data flow between our primary database system and all the third-party systems we use was very difficult,” says Paul Brown, senior developer manager at Guardian News and Media. “If one system was down, that impacted all the other systems. Those reliability issues meant new customers were sometimes not getting their papers because they weren’t showing up in our database.”

GNM also sometimes struggled to fulfill some new online and print subscriptions. “Because some system integrations were unreliable, we occasionally had no way of seeing how many customers made it all the way through the online ‘new subscriber’ checkout workflow,” Brown says. “Some customers who saw errors while checking out weren’t being notified they actually had active subscriptions.” Because GNM did not want to write more code to orchestrate workflows between so many distributed systems, it sought a new, efficient orchestration tool to automate the entire process.

Why Amazon Web Services

Rapidly Building New Workflows Using AWS Step Functions

For several years, GNM had been running its website on Amazon Web Services (AWS), relying on services including Amazon Kinesis and Amazon Redshift to power an analytics dashboard used by editors to gauge how stories are trending. Already familiar with these and other AWS services, GNM digital’s development team decided to implement AWS Step Functions, a tool that simplifies the coordination of distributed applications and microservices by triggering tasks in a specific sequence and coordinating distributed systems using visual workflows. This makes it easy to orchestrate application and business processes in an automated, reliable way.

By using AWS Step Functions, GNM developers can control multiple process executions using AWS Lambda functions. Using a serverless architecture allows GNM developers to build and run applications for business workflows without provisioning or managing any servers, allowing them to focus on writing business logic. They quickly realized how simple it was to use AWS Step Functions to coordinate AWS Lambda functions to build reliable workflows, and they used the tool to rapidly create new internal business workflows for multiple departments. These workflows included: automating subscriber account deletions across many distributed systems; receiving customer orders while external billing and payment services are offline; running an extract, transform, and load (ETL) newspaper-fulfillment pipeline through a series of Lambda functions; and orchestrating a self-service account-deletion process to free up time for technical support staff.

Simplifying the Orchestration of Multiple Systems

By using AWS Step Functions, GNM addressed its chief challenge—the efficient orchestration of data flow between multiple systems. “AWS Step Functions gives us a reliable, automated way of orchestrating very complex queries and processes between all our distributed systems,” Brown says. “We saved time and money by making it easy for our developers to build applications using AWS Lambda functions, giving them more productivity and agility. We also get a visual representation of the logic for each workflow, which makes it easier when discussing the solution with nontechnical stakeholders at the company.”

With the added reliability of AWS Step Functions, GNM can now receive customer subscription orders even when third-party billing systems are down. “By using AWS Step Functions, we can process a step and retry automatically a certain number of times before falling down to another code branch,” says Brown. “That meant we could create a self-contained checkout solution that processed data in the background without depending on the distributed systems to be live.”

The Benefits

Delivering Newspapers to Customers on Time, Every Time

With automated orchestration between distributed systems, GNM can ensure customer data is continuously updated and accurate. The result? Consistent, on-time newspaper delivery for thousands of subscribers. “We can ensure our suppliers receive the most accurate subscriber lists every day because of the automated fulfillment process we created using AWS Step Functions,” says Brown.

In addition to having up-to-date data on all subscribers, GNM has automated account deletions. “Our technical support team was spending too much time trying to delete customer accounts, and an engineer solved that problem by building an automated account-deletion process,” says Brown. “The system now progresses through a series of queries and automatically deletes users, so our support staff can spend more time on other tasks.” The process has saved GNM’s technical support team about 4 hours per week—an 80 percent reduction. “With the AWS Step Functions console UI, I can see, at a glance, what steps succeeded and what didn’t, and I can either replay the Step Function or perform a manual cleanup of the remaining systems where necessary,” says Mario Galic, a software developer at Guardian News and Media.

Scaling Development across Multiple Engineering Disciplines

With the new solution, GNM can give its developers an intuitive, easy-to-use technical tool that enables fast translation of business processes and flows. “AWS Step Functions gives us an orchestration solution that is accessible by a broad group of engineers at different levels throughout the company,” Brown says. “Because we can write Lambda functions in several development languages, our client-side developers feel more confident about chipping in along with our server-side developers to build and maintain back-end processes. Developers do not have to be experts in workflow, and the developers who wrote the Lambda function can easily create the Step Functions workflow. We can put more developers on projects, and that will ultimately enable the creation of more internal solutions that will drive efficiency and productivity.”

Guardian News & Media's newspaper-delivery architecture.

Guardian_News-arch-diagram

About Guardian News & Media

Guardian News and Media (GNM) is a London-based global media company and publisher of the Guardian and the Observer newspapers.

Benefits of AWS

  • Orchestrates complex workflows between distributed systems
  • Ensures on-time newspaper delivery to thousands of subscribers
  • Gives software developers more flexibility
  • Reduces required support time by 80 percent

AWS Services Used

AWS Step Functions

AWS Step Functions lets you coordinate multiple AWS services into serverless workflows so you can build and update apps quickly.

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Amazon Kinesis

Amazon Kinesis makes it easy to collect, process, and analyze real-time, streaming data so you can get timely insights and react quickly to new information.

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Amazon Redshift

Redshift powers mission critical analytical workloads for Fortune 500 companies, startups, and everything in between.

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AWS Lambda

Run code without thinking about servers. Pay only for the compute time you consume.

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