Why a Media Giant Sold Its Data Center and Headed to the Cloud

Condé Nast's CTO says the media company is no longer in the business of maintaining a data center. It has gone 'all-in' on the cloud with Amazon Web Services.

Two weeks ago, venerable media company Condé Nast — publisher of magazines like Vogue, The New Yorker and Wired — decommissioned its Newark, Del. data center. The 67,200 square feet facility had already been sold and the deal closed. The 105-year-old company had gone all-in with the cloud.

"Our job in the technology group at Condé Nast is to provide the content makers in the company with the best tools to create content," says Joe Simon, executive vice president and CTO of Condé Nast. "Now most of our content is distributed across all sorts of places. We've got to ensure that we have the platform and technology flexibility to enable this content to be distributed wherever our editors want it to be. And, of course, we also continue to manage the traditional IT functions like HR and finance and sales."

Print Is Still Strong for Condé Nast, But Digital Is Growing

Unlike many media companies, Condé Nast's increasing focus on digital has not been due to weakness in its print offerings. The past year, Simon says, was the best in the company's long history, and print played a significant part in that.

"Trying to tell my bosses print is dying was never taken seriously," he says. "It's not, not for us. News magazines are getting killed. But these are aspirational magazines. People want to be seen holding them in their hands."

But the company is rapidly expanding its footprint in digital, Simon says. Its Wired brand has always had a strong digital presence, and sites like Ars Technica and Reddit were born online. The company is strongly supporting its brands on tablets and is pushing into video as well.

Simon notes that Condé Nast brands have often fueled movie blockbusters — the film Argo was in part inspired by a Wired article and Brokeback Mountain was inspired by a short story of the same name published in The New Yorker. Now the company has the capability to capitalize on those opportunities itself, he says.

Condé Nast Questions Whether It Should Run Data Centers Anymore

"As we moved down this digital path — everything from creation to distribution — we started looking at our operations and looking at what we should be and shouldn't be in," Simon says. "One of the questions we asked ourselves was: 'Do we really want to be in the business of running data centers anymore?'"

Reaching the answer to that question was difficult. But in the end, Simon's higher-ups agreed: Condé Nast would get out of the data center game.

"The transition was a lot less challenging that the decision to do it," Simon says.

"Running a data center is a lot like running a business," he adds. "Even having an in-house data center didn't provide us with the agility and flexibility that we needed as we went down this digital path. So we decided the best option for us, really, was moving to a cloud solution."

Stopping Costs of Failing Projects Was Big Selling Point

One of the big selling points at Condé Nast was the capability to shut down a runaway project and remove the cost immediately.

"Let's say you're on a runaway project; there is so much inertia not to stop it," Simon says. "We've had a few of those. When I first came on, I shut down five or six projects that had been going on for five to seven years with no end in sight. If something doesn't work, you shut it down and the cost goes away."

"It took time to understand the economics," Simon adds. "But it's not a one-way street. You can always go back if you need to. But in the end, we are not in the business of maintenance. We're in the business of rapid change."

Once he got the green light, Simon and his team hit the ground running. They reviewed a slew of service providers for capability, functionality, flexibility and cost. On every front, Simon says, Amazon Web Services topped the competition.

It also didn't hurt that Amazon has long been Condé Nast's ally in the digital trenches — Simon notes that Amazon was an important partner when Condé Nast fought Apple to keep control of its customer information for subscriptions via the Apple App Store. Control of that sort of customer data is one of the advantages that oldline print publishers can bring to bear as they move into digital and begin mapping that data to web and smartphone behavior.

Short Deadline for Migration Ensures Success

Simon set his team a three-month deadline for the migration to AWS.

"Once we chose AWS, the whole planning and execution took three months," Simon says. "We didn't have too much time to sit and argue over the house. We were going to get this done in the most cleanline fashion we could."

Simon set such a strict deadline because he felt it was the best way to ensure success.

"Everything I've done with a tight timeframe has worked," he says. "Everything I've tried to do with a 'loosey-goosey timeframe has always failed. People will say it's the prudent thing to hedge your bets, but if that's how you're going to do it you might as well go home. I already had a backup if it failed; it's called my data center."

In the course of that three months, Simon's team planned and executed the migration of 500+ servers, 1 petabyte of storage, 100+ database servers, 100+ switches, routers and firewalls and its mission-critical apps.

A Head Start with Virtualization

Of course, Condé Nast had a bit of a head start. For the better part of three years, Simon's team had worked to virtualize everything in the company's environment. When the company pulled the trigger, they were ready to move.

"The actual creation of the environment worked like clockwork," he says. "The scripting is so easy. The APIs are a lot easier to use than we thought they would be. If we had done this three years ago, we would have been having a different conversation."

The migration began in April and the team was quick to see performance improvements. By May, Simon says it was clear everything was going to work. He put the facility on the market. It sold and the deal closed in mid-June.

There was pain involved. The migration meant a "significant layoff."

"I did it before we moved," Simon says. "I would not have got this through the old team. It's not fair to ask someone who built it to tear it down."

But in the end, Simon says, his team has improved performance by 30 percent to 40 percent and created a dynamic environment that can adjust as the company needs it to. It can freely experiment with new offerings because, as Simon says, "It's a lot easier to try and fail with this. You may spend a few hundred bucks; that's it."

And oh, yeah, operating costs are also down about 40 percent, Simon says.

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Thor Olavsrud covers IT Security, Big Data, Open Source, Microsoft Tools and Servers for CIO.com. Follow Thor on Twitter @ThorOlavsrud. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.

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