Publishing on the Cloud
How cloud computing is changing the potential of online publishing.
If the term âopen sourceâ has defined many online publishing efforts in recent years, âcloud computingâ may dominate the next several years. Observers continue to argue over what âcloudâ means but broadly it refers to virtual servers that can be set up quickly and in many cases, used on-demand (many publishers already use services that could be considered cloud-based, like Salesforce.com). Short-term, that means big time cost savings for building Web sites. Long-term, the cloud could dramatically alter traditional publishing services such as newsstand reports and fulfillment.
Consumer publisher Future US uses two of the major cloud providers in Rackspace and Amazon EC2 (a comparison of both platforms is available here). âYou can pay for your servers by the hour,â says Mark Kramer, director of Internet technology and operations. âWe use this like a utilityâwe only pay for what we need when we need it. Thereâs nobody to call, I can provision more devices at any time and I can turn them off at any time since Iâm not locked into a contract.â
Future US has seen a 75 percent reduction in hosting costs since moving to the cloud. âWeâre talking hundreds of thousands of dollars a year,â says Kramer. Â
In addition to cost savings, Kramer says the cloud offers increased agility. âIn the past (and I mean within the last two years), when you rolled out a Web site, youâd either have a data center you were paying for monthly, or you acquired servers or leased them from a hosting provider,â he adds. âIf you have fluctuations of seasonal trafficâsay you do a lot more at Christmasâwhen you design for capacity, youâre thinking about the most traffic not the least but youâre going to be paying for the most even if youâre not doing it every day. With the cloud, you can come to me and say, âI need three servers set up,â and I can go to the Rackspace server, press four buttons and in five minutes those servers are set up. I didnât have to call anybody in IT to help me, I donât have someone sitting in the data center dealing with this, I can just start working.â
That increased agility is especially helpful with custom projects for Futureâs customer publishing and marketing group, Future Plus, which recently teamed with Best Buy to launch @Gamer, a magazine available by subscription and at all Best Buy locations in the U.S. âThe subscription marketing infrastructure we manage for Best Buy came together within three or four weeks,â says Future US president John Marcom. âIn the old days this would have required months of testing and planning, as well as having to go find capital to buy new equipment.â
Managing traffic spikes via the cloud has been especially effective for UBMâs TechWeb, which has an aggressive events strategy (both live and virtual) and uses cloud-based servers for Web sites that complement shows, such as the Games Developer Conference, which drew 18,250 attendees. âCloud servers can run them for a few moments or a few days, then we can shut them down again,â says David Michael, CIO and executive vice president of global technology. TechWeb uses Amazon and GoGrid.
âA lot of the services every publisher can leverage now would have been cost prohibitive a few years ago,â adds Kramer. âEverybody struggled with video encoding but now there are a lot of low cost video encoding solutions now that are low cost because they run on a cloud infrastructure.â
In addition to cost savings, both Michael and Kramer say one of the biggest benefits of going to the cloud is moving existing personnel to other projects. âThis has allowed us to free up internal resources that were looking after servers, building internal software, and put them on doing other things and building new products,â says Michael. Â
Drawbacks With the Cloud
However, the cloud doesnât work for everything. âItâs not very applicable for things that are very database intensive, things that are very specialized and custom to the business process or things that are very CPU-intensive,â says Michael. âYou can get to the point at which itâs not effective to share equipment because you will hog all the resources on that equipment, so you might as well have your own.â
Kramer agrees and says that while Future US is planning to eliminate the budget for most of its Internet hardware in 2011, it still requires hardware for its data center and other internal systems. âBut when weâre specifically talking about public-facing Web sites or online apps it doesnât make sense for us to have even our development and staging environments internally anymore,â he adds.
Cost savings with the cloud also donât really kick in until the publisher has reached a certain amount of scale with what itâs running on the cloud, according to Michael. âWeâve been moving to the cloud with our smaller Web sites,â he adds. âThere are a lot of challenges with itâitâs hard to run databases, you need to be aware of security and you have to modify your software to work in the cloud. Still we have made savings and had operational improvements and we anticipate over time that we will make significant cost savings.â
Next Step for the Cloud: iPad Apps, Retail Metrics, Fulfillment?
Future US sees the cloud having a big impact on emerging publishing services, as well as some traditional staples. âIn the magazine industry, there are a lot of old, creaky processes in the way fulfillment has traditionally worked or the way publishers get intelligence about whatâs happening at retail,â says Marcom. âHopefully, the benefits of the cloud approach will permeate through those services as well. Weâre also starting to see systems that produce content on multiple platforms and a lot of that will take place in cloud-like environments. The actual upfront investment to turn a magazine into an iPad app will be quite trivial by time this is all done.â