Tiso Blackstar: Creating a new online news environment

About Tiso Blackstar

Tiso Blackstar Group is South Africa’s largest national English publishing group and second-largest digital publisher. It owns the largest music and independent film catalogues on the African continent and operates unique TV channels.

Industries: Media & Entertainment
Location: South Africa

About Siatik Systems

Siatik Systems is a leading Google solutions provider in South Africa, delivering consultancy and bespoke software engineering in the public and private sectors.

By consolidating the CMS for its highly popular news websites on Google App Engine, leading South African publisher Tiso Blackstar has eliminated the downtime that plagued its platform.

Google Cloud Platform Results

  • Eliminates downtime in traffic surges, thanks to autoscaling on Google App Engine
  • Reduces resource maintenance and administration costs with managed services
  • Helps ensure better reliability with a PaaS environment
  • Breaks stories with fast, powerful data set queries on Google BigQuery

53M+ page views per month for < $20 an hour

With over six million unique visitors every month, Tiso Blackstar is the second biggest digital publisher in South Africa. Its leading titles, including TimesLIVE and SowetanLIVE, are among the most popular news sites in the country, so when the company decided to become more digitally focused in 2015, the new direction signaled a sea change in South African publishing.

However, the company’s legacy systems, including an outdated, monolithic Content Management System (CMS), raised major scalability concerns. “The worst thing about the previous platform was its reliability,” says Alistair Gordon-Watt, DevOps Manager at Tiso Blackstar.

“The more traffic that came onto the platform, the more degradation would set into the environment until, ultimately, it would fail. One or more sites could be affected simultaneously, and this would happen with different scales of severity, often at the worst moments, such as during breaking news events. It was a paradoxical scenario. We had all the traffic, but no ability to serve it reliably. Adding additional VM capacity and re-configuring the load balancer was a fully manual process.”

“There was no way that our previous back-end infrastructure could support the growth we planned to achieve. That’s why we decided to set up a fully PaaS environment with Google App Engine that could autoscale on demand, providing robust, reliable infrastructure at an attractive cost.”

Alistair Gordon-Watt, DevOps Manager, Tiso Blackstar

More complex still, the company ran a number of CMS variants across its different stacks. “The underlying tech platforms were diverse,” explains Alistair. “Spread across a matrix of java, .net, and php backends and frameworks, with various integration points into both internal and third-party systems and services.”

“In terms of digital focus and direction, there was no way that our previous backend infrastructure could support the growth we planned to achieve,” he continues. “That’s why we decided to set up a fully platform as a service (PaaS) environment with Google App Engine that could autoscale on demand, providing robust, reliable infrastructure at an attractive cost.”

Consolidating systems

Print publishers worldwide are seeking to expand in the digital space and optimise content delivery in a competitive online marketplace. At Tiso Blackstar, an unreliable primary CMS held back the company’s popular online news titles, as Alistair explains. “Resources were inherited that had not been kept up-to-date with upgrades, so at least 40% of our time had to be spent handling servers and managing systems.”

As well as infrastructure problems, the disunity of the previous setup hampered the platform’s efficiency, business intelligence (BI), and marketing potential. “We had disparate websites, user logons, and entry points, so we didn't have one single view of a customer, subscriber, or user,” says Alistair. “We wanted to align everything with our internal systems, including subscriptions and advertising, and consolidate them in an autoscaled environment that would manage itself, freeing up development resources to explore new opportunities within previously unnavigable data sources and expose value back to the company.”

“No other supplier offered the same features as Google Cloud Platform. For autoscaling, where else would you go? We wouldn’t achieve a PaaS environment if we had to worry about scaling, and there's no other fully enterprise-type system that can do all that besides Google App Engine.”

Alistair Gordon-Watt, DevOps Manager, Tiso Blackstar

To do that, Tiso Blackstar ported their CMS VMs into Google Compute Engine instances, leveraging Google Service Management and highly available infrastructure with Google Cloud Load Balancing to stabilise and simplify platform management. Then, the team began building iterations of its leading brands in Google App Engine to create a CMS that would autoscale to match demand.

Siatik Systems provided key support throughout the process, with bimonthly meetings, service support, optimisation, training, certification, and backup strategies. “Siatik works as a billing partner,” says Alistair. “It invoices us in South African rand and hedge against the U.S. dollar exchange rate through a local financial institution, giving us more security around currency fluctuations.”

Now, Tiso Blackstar is moving all of its smaller titles and GoogleCompute Engine instances onto Google App Engine, monitoring the transition with dashboards on Google Stackdriver. By 2018, Alistair and his team aim to achieve a highly stable, fully PaaS, consolidated digital publishing environment with minimal resource overheads.

“No other supplier offered the same features as Google Cloud Platform,” says Alistair. “There were standout unique features that sold it to us. For autoscaling, where else would you go? We wouldn’t achieve a PaaS environment if we had to worry about scaling, and there's no other fullyenterprise-type system that can do all that besides Google App Engine.”

Breaking stories with Google BigQuery

“There were benefits of switching to Google Cloud Platform that we didn’t even anticipate,” says Alistair. Google BigQuery proved to be one of them when Tiso Blackstar received a PSD folder containing leaked emails from a governmental supplier. “We uploaded the PSD, extracted out all the individual emails, then used Google BigQuery to trawl through all the inboxes and query them,” remembers Alistair. “We looked for keywords, headings, people, points of interest, and places, so that journalists could create big traffic drivers around them.”

“Within hundreds of thousands of emails there were only a few hundred that were actually of key interest, but Google BigQuery gave us the speed to find and expose them to build leads,” says Alistair. “Because Google BigQuery uses the same type of syntax as normal SQL, following up queries and then turning that data into a database was very easy.” The stories that resulted made international headlines and were among the scoops of the year. “That was the first case we used it for,” continues Alistair, “and it exceeded all expectations.”

“We are committed to a long-term partnership with Google because we believe in the constantly evolving ecosystem that Google offers. New ideas will emerge from that, increasing our opportunities to gain corporate advantage and keeping us ahead in the South African digital publishing space.”

Alistair Gordon-Watt, DevOps Manager, Tiso Blackstar

Creating compound savings

With Tiso Blackstar’s digital portfolio attracting more than 53 million page views per month, the company is able to run its entire Google Cloud Platform environment, encompassing more than 30 projects, for less than $20 an hour. Google Services Management on Google Compute Engine and Google App Engine have transformed system administration roles into DevOps engineering roles, further reducing resource costs. Now, the team is trialing the beta of Google App Engine managed SSL on one of its domains, potentially saving thousands of dollars the company spends on certificates every year.

“We are committed to a long-term partnership with Google because we believe in the constantly evolving ecosystem that Google offers,” says Alistair. “New ideas will emerge from that, increasing our opportunities to gain corporate advantage and keeping us ahead in the South African digital publishing space.”

About Tiso Blackstar

Tiso Blackstar Group is South Africa’s largest national English publishing group and second-largest digital publisher. It owns the largest music and independent film catalogues on the African continent and operates unique TV channels.

Industries: Media & Entertainment
Location: South Africa

About Siatik Systems

Siatik Systems is a leading Google solutions provider in South Africa, delivering consultancy and bespoke software engineering in the public and private sectors.

Google Cloud Platform logo

12 Months FREE TRIAL

Try Kubernetes Engine, BigQuery, and other Cloud Platform products with $300 in free credit and 12 months.

TRY IT FREE
Google Cloud Platform logo

12 Months FREE TRIAL

Try Kubernetes Engine, BigQuery, and other Cloud Platform products with $300 in free credit and 12 months.

TRY IT FREE