How Al Jazeera successfully managed through the turmoil

The following blog post was published as a guest blog post on Forbes.com. I wrote it after Al Jazeera successfully moved some of their Drupal sites from their traditional hosting company to Acquia Hosting (now called Acquia Managed Cloud) to help them survive a 2,000% traffic increase as a result of the crises in the Middle East. The blog post provides real proof of how the Cloud helped one of the largest news organizations in the world survive one of the largest political events in the world. A fascinating story for Drupal!

Over the past decade, the Web has completely transformed how people create and consume information. We have all witnessed firsthand how the free flow of information is impacting the way individuals and companies communicate and how the rules of governance are changing for entire nations. Now, we’re all participating and reporting on events as they happen, and from where they happen.

There is no better example of that than the most recent events in the Middle East. And one organization, Al Jazeera, the world’s largest news organization solely focused on the Middle East, was right in the middle of the incredible broadcast and social media storm that instantly developed. Throughout the ordeal, Al Jazeera effectively leveraged the power of the cloud to stay on the air and scale its reach and performance. If events of the past few months are any indication, there are lessons here for other content-driven companies to consider for their own online operations.

Al Jazeera’s English operations broadcasts news and current affairs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with more than 1,000 staff members from more than 50 nations. Quite literally, Al Jazeera provides the world with a front seat on the Middle East stage. It broadcasts from centers in Doha, the capital city of the state of Qatar, Kuala Lumpur, London and Washington.

Al Jazeera’s live blog site is powered by Drupal, a free, open source social publishing platform that enables content-driven organizations to publish content and build communities quickly and easily. Drupal is used by many of the world’s most prominent organizations including the White House, the World Economic Forum, Intel, The Economist and Turner Broadcasting.

Al Jazeera’s English live blog site was a vital source for breaking news in Egypt. Bloggers were posting updates from the epicenter of the crisis and social media was often the only means of communication both inside and outside of the country. During the crisis, traffic to the Al Jazeera web site increased 1,000% and traffic to the live blog spiked 2,000%. This dilemma, normally a good one for news organizations, caused unpredictable performance and excessive page load times for site visitors.

From an infrastructure standpoint, Al Jazeera had historically hosted its blog with a traditional provider but had increasingly suffered a variety of scalability issues brought on by surging demand – unacceptable for Al Jazeera or any similar content business. What might have been just a typical technical nuisance on a mundane news day quickly became unsustainable when Egypt erupted.

Al Jazeera faced a mission-critical problem that needed a real-time solution. Where could it find performance hosting and support immediately and within a reasonable cost? Would it be secure and private? What about reliable? The answer: The cloud, the various data access, storage and hosting services available remotely over the Internet. Much discussed but often not fully appreciated by the business community, cloud services enable custom sites to perform well under varying, and sometimes severe, traffic conditions. Moving to a Drupal-supported cloud option allowed Al Jazeera to scale up quickly, dynamically render their content faster, and achieve a higher level of site reliability – issues that previously overwhelmed its physical hardware environments.

By leveraging Drupal and turning to the cloud, the Al Jazeera technical team demonstrated how to rapidly turn a seemingly disastrous situation into a net positive business decision going forward. Fast forward a few weeks, and the demands on Al Jazeera’s Web infrastructure have only increased with new crises across the region. The difference is the organization is now able to better handle these unforeseen demands and focus on the core business, reporting the news as it happens.

Comments

Bill Eslin (not verified):

I must admit having a bit of hard time understanding what is the challenge in delivering the content of a site that mainly is a blog with a couple media features; even comments (which seems to be the only dynamic feature) are delivered by a third party service (Disqus).

While Drupal is a fine tool, I fail to recognize the value of that solution, or for what is worth the underlying architecture provided by Acquia, over any other that whatever serious Web firm could offer.

March 3, 2011 - 07:56
Dries:

Al Jazeera is the CNN or the BBC of the Middle East. On a normal day, they reach 220 million households in more than 100 countries. Their ability to deal with an unexpected 2,000% traffic spike in a matter of minutes is unusual. I can't share absolute traffic numbers but trust me; it is not something that the average content management system or the average web agency will be able to handle that fast or efficiently.

March 3, 2011 - 14:01
Bill Eslin (not verified):

Again; you here quote their TV audience. This site most likely attract a fraction of that population, on top of it the feature set served on this site is entirely "static"; dynamic features, at the exception of commenting (which is handled by a third party service) are reserved to the editorial team.

I am pretty confident quite a large portions of serious technical shops are nowadays familiar enough with reverse proxy and caching technologies to handle that type of use case; nothing terribly impressive in scaling "static" content.

March 4, 2011 - 02:10
Dries:

I agree that scaling the LAMP stack is a well-understood problem and something many technical shops should be able to do. The challenge was the time frame and the circumstances under which the work had to be accomplished. At that point, the site was absolutely mission-critical for Al Jazeera. It took quite a bit more work than setting up a reverse proxy. The work would have taken a technical shop or their internal operations team quite a bit of time and money using a traditional hosting -- they tried and failed. It took us a fraction of that time thanks to our optimized, elastic, highly available cloud architecture and Drupal expertise.

March 4, 2011 - 04:12
Anonymous (not verified):

This morning I turned on the TV to check out some news. The BBC had nothing but breakfast fluff, despite all the important things going on in the world.

Having read the first half of this post the night before, I thought I'd check out Al Jazeera. I was greeted by at least half an hour of uninterrupted, intelligent, well-informed debate about our new collective use of information and the emerging relationships between existing power structures and social media.

Its good to know that my new favourite news channel is powered by my long-standing favourite CMS.

Rock on.

March 3, 2011 - 08:53
Sukhjinder Singh (not verified):

It is pleasure to know the one of the biggest new agency is my all time favorite CMS(drupal).

Regarding performance is concerned I just looked into the view source of http://blogs.aljazeera.net/ and come to know that there is NO CSS/JS aggregation. Is there any specific reason to do this?

March 5, 2011 - 08:28
s.Daniel (not verified):

Thanks Dries for the clarifying comments.

To give us an idea about the traffic spikes Google insights is very interesting: http://www.google.com/insights/search/#q=Al%20Jazeera&cmpt=q
Especially since the filter options show how fast the interest increased in Germany for example: http://www.google.com/insights/search/#q=Al%20Jazeera&geo=DE&date=today%...

The reaction time obviously was crucial at that point since interest even now after the spikes has roughly doubled which it surely wouldn't have if the people couldn't have accessed the site.

May 14, 2011 - 21:08

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