Hearst Delivers a Flexible Digital Marketplace with Windows Azure

In an age when readers and advertisers want flexibility in receiving and delivering content—and publishers seek to distribute to niche audiences—Hearst Newspapers is using Windows Azure Cloud Services to explore opportunities in the digital marketplace. With Windows Azure, organizations can host, scale, and manage web applications on the Internet through Microsoft data centers.

“Windows Azure enabled us to meet our goals quickly and create a high-quality solution to support our first mobile app, while preserving our flexibility to include additional devices, apps, and storefronts to expand our digital market share,” says Roberta Kowalishin, Vice President of Web Technology at Hearst Newspapers.

Hearst, one of the largest diversified media companies in the United States, had been operating no-fee websites for several years and wanted to test subscription-based premium content—branded separately for each news property—delivered to mobile apps. Content for existing Hearst news websites resided in several content management systems. The company needed a cloud services solution that tied together these systems and orchestrated which offers were available to which users based on their subscription status or purchase. Because margins in the media business are small, the company sought a cost-effective solution that would be scalable enough to handle likely traffic spikes caused by news events. Hearst put itself under a one-month go-to-market deadline.

In May 2011, together with Pariveda Solutions, a member of the Microsoft Partner Network, Hearst built the solution, a token-based entitlement database (EDB) that interacts with the mobile app, the subscription database, and the iTunes Store as part of a mobile app rollout for the San Francisco Chronicle. It next used the same infrastructure for a mobile app branded for the Houston Chronicle and has completed additional rollouts since.

Hearst can deploy Windows Azure instances in less than a day, and it uses the cloud services to create test instances and run load testing in one day—compared to the two to three weeks that the process formerly required. It can build and deploy software updates in one or two hours with Windows Azure, a time savings of about 75 percent over its previous process.

By hosting the EDB in Windows Azure, Hearst avoided hundreds of thousands of dollars in capital costs and operating expenses associated with building an on-premise solution and operating it over a three-year period. Those charges would have come to an estimated US$10,000 per month—compared to the $2,000 per month that Hearst incurs for Windows Azure—for a savings of 80 percent and, over three years, of $288,000.

“We reviewed the Windows Azure five-nine’s SLA [service level agreement] and we have been satisfied with the high availability that Microsoft provides,” says Kowalishin. “For Hearst subscribers, the news has to flow as readily as water or electricity. Anything less could cripple adoption and our move into mobile apps. That puts a heavy responsibility on the EDB—one that it is meeting successfully.”