For 130 years, National Geographic has been taking worldwide audiences on exciting voyages of exploration to the farthest reaches of the earth and beyond. Today, National Geographic Partners (NGP) reaches millions of consumers each month through global television channels, magazines in 37 different languages, and the largest social media footprint of any brand, with more than 420 million followers. NGP—a joint venture between the nonprofit National Geographic Society (NGS) and 21st Century Fox—sees its mission as helping people better understand the world and their role in it.
"National Geographic is at the center of a community of bold people with insatiable curiosity,” says Nik Khilnani, the senior director of platform development for NGP. "We chase the big questions, challenge accepted beliefs, and push the boundaries. Furthering knowledge about and understanding of our world is, and always has been, the core purpose of National Geographic.”
To better support this mission, NGP is poised to migrate all its existing applications and IT operations from its on-premises data centers to the cloud. The company also has a cloud-first policy for new applications and plans to rethink traditional content management systems (CMS) as it embraces new approaches that better fit its multichannel, multiformat content.
"AWS is a key component of our technology strategy going forward," says Khilnani. "By moving to AWS, we can focus on innovation and incubating new ideas."
One new idea the company wanted to explore was providing single-portal access to the company's multimedia content catalog, dating all the way back to NGS's founding and the debut of National Geographic magazine in 1888.
"We have 130 years of valuable content that is relevant and useful today, but only if it's accessible and discoverable," Khilnani says. "We asked ourselves how we could take advantage of AWS to make that entire catalog available to customers."
There were two major obstacles. First, the immense volume of data was stored in CMSs on multiple continents and in different formats. Second, there was a challenge with the category of content most synonymous with the NGP brand: images—especially photographs, but also maps and charts.
"We didn't have sufficient metadata needed to surface images the way we envisioned," says Khilnani. "We considered a manual tagging project, but—in addition to being time-consuming and cost-prohibitive—we would have needed to create new tools and authoring workflows."
NGP used Amazon Web Services (AWS) serverless computing technologies to overcome these challenges and build the mobile-native National Geographic App, the company's first multimedia, cross-channel application.
On the iOS and Android app—currently available only to customers of the Australian telecom Optus—users can now explore National Geographic content dating back to the first issue of the magazine, including thousands of photographs, magazine and web articles, short- and long-form videos, Instagram feeds, and exclusive app-only video content. The app presents users with refreshed, engaging content driven by their interests and usage history each time they visit. The app also offers granular notification settings, so users are in control of when and on what devices they receive them.
To accomplish all of this, the app makes use of multiple AWS technologies. After an upstream Node.js aggregation application normalizes incoming data for compatibility with the app's Amazon CloudSearch indexes, the ingested files are stored as objects in Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3). AWS Lambda, a serverless compute service that runs code triggered by events, responds to Amazon S3 object creations by updating index entries in Amazon DynamoDB, a serverless, non-relational database with single-digit-millisecond responsiveness at any scale.
If the new files are images, other AWS Lambda functions direct resizing and cropping as needed. To solve the problem of insufficient image metadata, National Geographic is using Amazon Rekognition, a deep-learning computer-vision service. As another step in the platform's image processing, AWS Lambda functions invoke Amazon Rekognition to identify and label objects, events, and concepts visible in any new images and videos detected in Amazon S3.
"Out of all the automated image-tagging options we considered, Amazon Rekognition was easiest to adopt and get value from right away," says Khilnani. "Amazon Rekognition helps the app surface and apply the right metadata for images and enables a truly 'smart' automatic cropping process. For example, Amazon Rekognition helps ensure only photographs are cropped, while maps and charts are kept intact so no information is lost."
To deliver a highly personalized experience, the app stores user activity data and lists of favorited content in Amazon DynamoDB, where AWS Lambda functions use it to build individual user profiles and the custom Amazon CloudSearch feeds that serve the content users see in the app. User notifications are delivered using Amazon Simple Notification Service (Amazon SNS). "Amazon SNS was easy to integrate and works really well, so it freed us from building our own notification service and gave us more time to focus on features," says Khilnani.
The option to build the National Geographic App using AWS serverless computing was critical to the success of the project. “Using AWS serverless computing reduced development time by months and enabled us to quickly add features that would otherwise have been out of scope,” says Khilnani. “Without Amazon Rekognition, for example, it would have been challenging to serve images based on user preferences, a key part of the user experience.”
The success NGP experienced using a serverless approach is not the only way NGP has benefited from its AWS-centered technology strategy.
"The breadth of services available on AWS gave us the option to maximize our agility and speed by leapfrogging to serverless," says Khilnani. "Serverless computing is just one way AWS is enabling us to innovate in response to constant changes in business needs and customer demands. Easy-to-use technology from AWS lets us focus on experimenting, learning, and innovating better and faster than ever."
Learn more about serverless computing and applications.