Widen Enterprises, Inc. provides digital media solutions for marketing, IT, and creative professionals. Customers use Widen’s suite of digital asset management (DAM) software to share files globally, enabling brand equity and consistent cross-channel brand representation. Widen hosts and organizes digital files for over 250 clients in higher education, manufacturing, healthcare, advertising and marketing agencies, and other industries. Widen is a privately held corporation located in Madison, Wisconsin.

Widen began in 1948 providing prepress services to the printing business. As the company began providing digital retouching services, it developed a software as a service (SaaS) application so customers could view and access files online instead of using e-mail. Recognizing a market opportunity, Widen went on to develop a suite of cloud-based digital services to host and organize digital files. Customers can upload videos, documents, images, and other digital files and then preview the files, add metadata, search for content, and download content in the format that they need. By 2008, 75 customers worldwide were using Widen’s DAM solution for their marketing and branding needs. At the time, Widen was using its internal data center to host the application. Growing the data center was becoming cumbersome and expensive. When a client needed to store terabytes of video files, Widen started looking for a cost-effective solution for storage.

“Our application is cloud-based, so deciding on a cloud-based storage solution wasn’t an issue,” says Deanna Ballew, Manager, Infrastructure and Development Teams. “We found no other cloud provider at that time who had the storage capability that Amazon Web Services (AWS) offered with Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3).” Using Amazon S3, Widen can handle uploads of files upwards of 100 GB and create and store multiple previews and custom conversions for millions of client assets.

By spring 2010, Widen’s continued growth and success using Amazon S3 led the company to move its infrastructure almost completely to AWS to take advantage of additional AWS solutions. For example, the Widen team decided to migrate from SQL Server to MySQL to take advantage of Amazon Relational Database Service (Amazon RDS) and not have to manage databases themselves.

Each Widen customer has its own site, which runs in an Apache Tomcat servlet container in Amazon EC2, and is backed by an Amazon RDS database. “The scalability is nice,” comments Ballew. “We can spin up more instances as we get new clients.” Requests to the site are routed through Elastic Load Balancing to a pool of reverse-proxy server Amazon EC2 instances, which then forward the request to the appropriate servlet. The servlet pulls necessary data from the backing Amazon RDS database and local search indexes and then returns a response to the user. Files that are viewed or downloaded from the site are largely served through Amazon CloudFront, leveraging the AWS global network for distribution. Figure 1 demonstrates Widen’s solution running on AWS.


Figure 1. Widen Architecture on AWS

At upload time, Widen uses Amazon EC2 to generate previews for digital media. Amazon EC2 Spot Instances are used with Amazon Simple Queue Service (Amazon SQS) to manage capacity for file conversions. “A service that monitors the number of messages in a queue will bring up the appropriate number of instances to handle the load,” explains Dave Haworth, Cloud Architect. “Using Spot Instances, we can scale up and down to handle the amount of conversions that we need in a cost effective manner.”

Because of certain software licensing and other internal requirements, Widen continues to maintain a data center on premises and uses Amazon Virtual Private Cloud (Amazon VPC) and VPN for secure access to the internal infrastructure. Widen runs primarily in the US East (Northern Virginia) Region, uses multiple Availability Zones for automatic failover, and takes advantage of multiple AWS Regions during file uploads to provide the lowest possible latency for global users.

Cornell University Photography, part of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, shoots and stores digital photography and video for use by the university, national magazines, and the public. The department was storing images on the university’s servers, but had ongoing security and support issues. Furthermore, the department didn’t have the resources to replace its aging servers and the service was coming to a halt. After research, Cornell decided on a SaaS solution because the university wanted to be able to expand easily without having to manage its own application. “We started using Widen in 2011 and it’s been a major step up,” says Corey Chimko, Digital Resources Coordinator at Cornell University Photography. “We’ve been able to store and process more images in one and one-half years on Widen than in the previous five years. It’s been a breath of fresh air.”

“Cornell’s solution is our standard code base and implementation on AWS,” says Ballew. “The cloud tie-in on the back end gives Cornell, and all our customers, virtually unlimited storage.” By replacing its outdated servers with Widen, Cornell University Photography is able to take advantage of the storage and processing power of the AWS platform. “Previously, we had to make administrative decisions about what to upload because the old system could only handle a very small percentage of Cornell’s photo content,” Chimko explains. “Cloud storage allows us to use Widen as an archive as well as a marketing system. We don’t have to worry about storage and processing power. The system has seen 99.9 percent uptime, and we can have as many users on the system as we want without taking a hit on performance or speed.” Figure 2 illustrates the university’s digital media system on Widen and AWS.


Figure 2. Cornell University Image Portal System on Widen and AWS

Previously, Widen wasn’t able to track costs related to the on-premises data center. “We had no idea what costs were per client,” says Ballew. “We just kept buying and replacing hardware every three years. Using AWS, we can bill back based on storage and usage—and pass savings along to our clients.” For example, Widen is allowing clients to put assets in an archive state that Widen will move to Amazon Glacier. “It allows us to charge customers less because we’re paying less. Clients can store more data at a lower cost by using Amazon Glacier.”

Haworth adds, “The scale and performance of AWS allows us to grow practically unbounded. We can accommodate the needs of a client of any size. That’s huge for us.” Using AWS APIs, the company estimates that the time to launch a new site has been reduced from two hours to ten minutes. “Now we can just focus on making sure that the client can get data to us—and we don’t have to scramble for storage. It’s a huge relief.”

For Widen, moving to AWS has helped the company innovate in ways it wasn’t able to with a traditional data center. “Running on AWS removed a lot of obstacles and barriers. Now we can grow at a pace that we would not have able to grow with our previous data center,” says Ballew. After migrating to AWS, Widen’s client base has grown from 75 to 250 customers worldwide. “We’ve taken advantage of AWS innovation and services to add new features and functionality to our products that we never would have thought about prior to using to AWS,” she continues. “We can sum up our experience with AWS in one word—liberating.”

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