Breaking News and Server Gridlock

MediaNews Group' sluggish Web site was turning off readers and advertisers. The culprit? A content-management application.

November 7, 2003

7 Min Read
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By the end of this year, MediaNews will take it a step further and begin revamping its Web site--which today contains mostly static content--to a dynamic portal. MediaNews has invested about $2 million in the new portal architecture, which lets each publication on the site manage and change its own content and presentation without going through the IT staff. The new portal software, from Art Technology Group, will let the newspapers dynamically move elements around the pages, offer personalization and serve targeted content and promotions to online readers. The site currently provides little wiggle room for creativity and expansion.

"This will give them more flexibility in managing their sites," says Dennis Pals, general manager for Denver-based MNG Interactive.

Today, the IT group tracks the laborious process of making changes. The company adds up to 2,000 articles to its Web sites daily. Even if it's just a change to the front page of one of MediaNews' papers, Marsh says, IT still has to delete and regenerate all the pages on the pub's site.

Trial and Error

Before adding a Redline T/X 2600 Web I/O Accelerator appliance to the mix, MediaNews tried caching and other tactics to relieve the app servers of URL-translation duty. Marsh and his team began by caching parts of each Web page at the Web server, which they still do today, to take the workload off the app servers.The Vignette app, version 6.01 of the packaged content-management software, uses templates for displaying Web pages and information, and MediaNews creates elements such as breaking news or reader polls using these templates. They then get cached at the Web server, along with the rest of the content. This way, a request doesn't always have to go back to the app server and database to render a page, Marsh says.

Caching alone temporarily perked up the site's performance, but there were so many different site components inside the Web server that when a newspaper posted breaking news, Vignette still had to flush out the entire cache to present the new content. This is because Vignette's cache-management procedure is single-threaded, so it couldn't handle a deluge of requests without crashing. Configuring the software to refresh the cache takes the load off of Vignette because the software doesn't have to manage a separate request for each page element.

Next MediaNews tried a caching appliance, but it couldn't decipher the generic vanity URLs, either. And when a newspaper editor modified a Web page, the cache server couldn't synchronize with the Web servers. "We were back to square one. Every third request to the Web server went straight back to our app server," Marsh says.

Load balancing didn't work because it increased the load on the database, and the caching appliance APIs the company used were excruciatingly slow, taking as long as 20 minutes to cleanse the content, an eternity in daily news time. "That didn't fly with our newspapers--they wanted a breaking news story on the Web site right now," Marsh says.

Translating Into DollarsSo MediaNews installed Redline's appliance, primarily to translate the URLs, which gave the app servers a rest. The new device also manages all inbound client connections, and its compression feature helped cut download times nearly in half for many of MNG's sites. It also saved the company about $5,000 a month in extra bandwidth costs, Marsh says.

MediaNews may still use the Redline appliance for translating vanity URLs like that point to outside hosting sites, Marsh says. The appliance will mainly accelerate and compress content for MediaNews' readers, as well as provide SSL acceleration so that MediaNews can let readers subscribe to their pubs securely online rather than by phone. The publishing company will upgrade to version 7.0 of Vignette for managing, but not delivering, content, Marsh says, which is more the application's specialty.

MediaNews also won't scrap its existing server architecture with the new portal. The new software will run on the Windows 2000 or Windows 2000 Advanced Server platforms. The publishing company has upgraded its storage area network from 1 GB to 2 GB of storage and added storage virtualization software from Fujitsu to increase its I/O throughput and provide better management of its storage.

"We couldn't grow much further with the existing environment," Marsh says. "We've done all we can do performancewise."

A Tight Deadline

In the end, it was just too risky not to do something ASAP. MediaNews Group Interactive, the hosting division of MediaNews Group--publisher of the Denver Post and the seventh largest newspaper company in the U.S.--got the green light to buy a Web appliance earlier this year after convincing company executives that leaving its struggling Web site infrastructure as is would be disastrous.URL translation troubles were overburdening the app servers. Sessions were crashing and pages were loading at a snail's pace, risking relationships with readers and advertisers. The IT department's sales pitch for the appliance quick-fix was heard loud and clear by the company's president, COO and CFO. "We told them if we didn't do something soon, our sites would become inaccessible for many visitors," says Skip Marsh, IT manager for MNG Interactive.

The only other option to fix the URL and performance problem was too pricey and complicated--purchase more software and server hardware for about $230,000 and then manually load-balance the Web servers with the DNS. The Redline T/X 2600 Web I/O Accelerator appliance would cost under $50,000, so it won hands down.

The hosting division had been pitching its new portal infrastructure even before the appliance, pointing to the future growth of the site. Even with the new URL translation appliance, the site still couldn't accommodate more large MediaNews pubs that were hosted elsewhere. "These large sites were not yet being hosted by us because the system couldn't handle the additional traffic loads," Marsh says. "We explained how we would be able to increase revenue by adding this functionality," he says. That not only would mean more readers and advertisers, but also bring more MediaNews pubs under the company's portal.

"We were able to come to an agreement on a three-year plan, where we would spread the costs and functionality out over time," Marsh says. It begins with installing the new hardware and portal software and then gradually rolling out the registration, personalization and online subscriptions.

Securing IT dollars, even for such an obviously important project, still is difficult, Marsh says. "Any time you ask for money, you get resistance initially--capital dollars are not as readily available as they were a few years ago," he says. The next system MNG Interactive will have to sell is a managed end-to-end network. It includes system and application monitoring, capacity planning, a more advanced backup system and disaster-recovery plan.Skip Marsh: IT Manager, MediaNews Group Interactive, DenverSkip MarshSkip Marsh is responsible for maintaining the publishing company's corporate network, helpdesk, e-mail, portal architecture and SAN environment. He also creates and enforces the company's security policy. "If it plugs into a wall or takes batteries, I am responsible for it," Marsh says. Marsh has worked in IT for six years, four of them at MediaNews. He holds an associate's degree in electronics and has an MCSE certification.

Next time, I'll: Use something other than Vignette's content-delivery application to deliver our Web sites. And I'll insist that vendors demonstrate everything they say their products/applications can do before we sign a purchase order.

Most ill-timed Web failure: During the week of 9/11, I was in Texas going to Dell training, and the sites became extremely sluggish due to traffic loads. Our developers had to really dumb down many of our sites' templates to get them to load faster.

Why running a media portal is no picnic: The only thing each of our newspapers has in common is the look of the final product. Some newspapers don't have anyone who can manage their site and therefore want everything automated, while others want to manage everything and don't want IT to do anything with it.

Best advice I've ever gotten: Buy the best one they make, because inevitably you will need a feature on the one you didn't buy.Taking a gamble: I bought a $100 raffle ticket for a 1987 Audi 4000 CS/Quattro along with six other people, fresh out of high school. I was flat broke and $100 seemed like $1,000 to me, but I had this feeling. ... We won, and the next year they raffled off a 1988 Camaro, and we won that car, too.

For fun: Home decorating, fixing up my 1968 VW Bug and weightlifting.

Wheels: No Audi, no Camaro. A Dodge Durango--it has a big motor, it's a good off-roader and it still fits in my garage.

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