NU.nl: readymade multimedia timelines with Firebase

NU.nl is the most popular news website in the Netherlands, visited by millions of people every month. When Sanoma, the parent company of NU.nl, acquired broadcast rights to Champions League football, it looked to enhance its coverage with a new NUsport app delivering real-time multimedia timelines for live matches. With the first Champions League game only eight weeks away, the development team chose Firebase for a cost-effective, ready-made solution it could trust.

“We had just eight weeks to deliver the new NUsport app. People watching the Champions League football matches on television were going to be directed to the new app for real-time updates, so we had to be ready for the first match. Building a custom solution would take too long, so we looked at SaaS solutions instead. Firebase was top of our list. It's a total solution, with a complete backend. You just create an account and it's there. We tried it one morning to see if it was right for us, and by the end of the day, we had decided it was.” - Emiel van der Veen, iOS developer, Sanoma Digital Development

Total, simple, cost-effective

In an increasingly diverse media landscape, news organisations need fast and flexible CMS and publishing tools. NU.nl wanted the NUsport app to deliver real-time coverage of ongoing football matches through multimedia timelines. The company’s previous timeline tool was a SaaS service with a CMS and embed code that only permitted short text content. With only eight weeks to prepare the app, there was no time to build a custom solution, so the team looked for SaaS solutions.

Firebase was a perfect fit. Rather than build a system from scratch, Sanoma’s in-house developers followed simple Firebase documentation to create an account and a proof of concept without support. Because Firebase can be activated for a few users at minimal cost and risk, Sanoma took an explorative approach to development, learning by doing without excessive upfront investment of time and resources. The team rapidly adapted to writing data models for the flattened Firebase database, so that messages from the NUsport server stack write to several locations, enabling simultaneous timelines for tournament overviews as well as individual games. Thanks to Google’s total backend support, the straightforward NUsport setup performs without latency problems or errors even when the app experiences a high or fluctuating set of users. And unlike the previous embed code timeline solution, Firebase makes in-app advertisements possible, opening a new source of revenue.

“The NUsport infrastructure is exceptionally simple. Our content management system writes to Firebase which sends all the information to the apps. That's it. The costs are very low, and the performance is very, very fast. We expected a lot, because Google has experience with high loads of traffic. We weren’t disappointed. As our user base grows we need more bandwidth, which is covered by pay-as-you go pricing. But there was no need to implement 10 or 20 servers from the start. You can just create an account, pay about nine euros a month, and see where it goes.” - Kristiaan van Drie, IT Manager, Sanoma Digital Development

An off-the-shelf tool that fits like a custom solution

Previously, NU.nl journalists were limited on what type of media they could post on timelines. On NUsport with Firebase, the sports editors post text, images, video and polls and create their own scoreboards. That’s why the NU.nl main site switched to Firebase for its own live coverage. Firebase may have be an off-the-shelf tool, but it brings the versatility of a custom solution.

“We’ve used our Firebase solution for almost a year now. There's no reason to change it. It's still the easiest solution to run, with significant cost benefits relative to running 15 servers. We’ve had no downtime whatsoever. No complaints from users about slow connections or not receiving updates. No maintenance needs. In fact, we just implemented it in the main NU.nl app, for major ongoing events.” - Kristiaan van Drie, IT Manager, Sanoma Digital Development

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