Content in the Cloud

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Benefits for Publishers and Media Companies

One of the key benefits to publishers and content aggregators of cloud computing is its massive scalability. With capacity that scales up and down on a real-time basis, services such as Amazon’s S3 make it feasible even for new companies to offer sophisticated solutions and for established companies to crunch terabytes of data more economically. 

During a recent SIIA event in New York called Cloud Computing and Content: Where Are the Best Opportunities? moderated by John Blossom of Shore Communications, Marc Frons, CTO of digital operations at The New York Times Co., discussed how the media company took advantage of that scalability to handle record traffic during the presidential election cycle. "The cloud is the home of our interactive news technologies platform … All of our election coverage has been on the cloud, including congressional votes database, our word map which shows how people are feeling about the election at any given moment, and our election coverage itself." 

Given the dire economic forecast for 2009, concrete and often dramatic cost savings are another key consideration for companies considering cloud computing. Larry Schwartz, president of Newstex, which licenses and delivers content from online sources, provides a vivid example of the role cloud computing has had in contributing to his bottom line. "We have been increasingly working with video on demand for our customers; it would have cost tens of thousands of dollars for a content delivery network suited to distributing them," Schwartz says. "But we use Amazon’s service for storage—it’s like the electric company for us, just another utility—and we pay 10 to 15 cents per gigabyte of storage each month." In October 2008, Newstex added 1,500 hours of video to the cloud. Its storage bill from Amazon for the month was $200.

Operational and budgetary considerations aside, cloud computing opens up exciting opportunities for content providers to mix and match their content in a way not technically or financially feasible without the massive computing infrastructure enabled with clouds. "Publishers can think much more flexibly now," says Blossom, who takes credit for coining the "content cloud" term. "By harvesting, hosting, and combining their content with other content in the cloud, publishers and media companies can answer a higher level of questions for the customer." 

Noerr likes the definition of a content-in-the-cloud environment as the ultimate mashup. "It’s a time of sophistication and experimentation for publishers," she says. According to Frons, The New York Times is gradually converting its internal API to externally facing APIs on Amazon Web Services so that customers can, for instance, license a feed of recipe files or campaign contributions from the newspaper and mix it with their own content. 

Colin Carr, chief architect for Smart Online, a provider of private label applications for small business customers, sees that willingness to package and price content on an a la carte basis to smaller partners as a cornerstone for success, both for content providers and end users. "Putting content into the cloud gives you the ability to reach smaller customers, and it gives smaller customers a chance to access higher quality data."

Perceived Drawbacks 

With all the benefits that accrueto publishers using cloud computing to manage content, why isn’t everypublisher and media company on board? Security concerns remain a majorstumbling block. Companies are still hesitant about putting criticalbusiness processes and content outside of their control; at the SIIAevent, panelists agreed it is common now for 20% of enterprisecomputing to take place in the cloud while 80%—generally, the moremission-critical applications—resides behind the enterprise firewall. 

DanCarmel, CEO of SpringCM, which provides on-demand content managementservices to enterprises, feels the security concern is a bit of a falsefront. "If someone says they are against critical content residingoutside of their organization, I always ask what they are doing withtheir critical business records now. They’re probably storing papercopies in a warehouse. What if it blows up? How thoroughly do you vetyour physical storage vendors?" Carmel says the question usuallyelicits a sheepish smile. "A good records policy is defined byconsistency. Isn’t it more consistent to place content in a bank-gradesecurity data center than in a physical warehouse?"

Certainly asthe cloud-computing environment matures, security concerns are beingaddressed more consistently. In October 2008, Google unveiled a newservice-level agreement (SLA) that guarantees 99.9% systemaccessibility for users of its Google Apps Premier Edition, joining theAmazon S3 SLA that launched in 2007. Carmel is proud of SpringCM’s SAS70 Level 1 and 2 security certifications, and he shares them with anycustomer who has signed a nondisclosure agreement. "We have to reassureIT departments that we manage our systems as well as they managetheirs," he says. 

Other companies are addressing related anglesof security. For example, Boulder, Colo.-based Symplified offers aunified access management system built for the cloud architectures ofSaaS. The company’s "Identity as a Service" approach provides on-demandfeatures such as single sign-on, provisioning, deprovisioning, auditingand compliance, access and authorization, identity synchronization,strong authentication, and identity integration.

Anotherhesitation is ensuring access to content. Blossom says, "Puttingcontent into clouds is one thing, but accessing it is still hard." Hesees web-mining services as a key play in the next year or two forensuring that companies can reach their content assets as easily in thecloud as they do within their firewall. One of the many companiestackling that problem is Xeround, with its Intelligent Data Grid (IDG)technology. This is a database service layer that resides between thestorage and web/
apps layers, reduces performance bottlenecks, andensures reliability of the content delivery network by making sure allmission-critical data lives in more than one location.

Capacityis sometimes mentioned as a reason to defer moving content to theclouds. At what point does the lure of cloud computing’s excesscapacity also become a limiting factor? Schwartz is unfazed by thatconcern. "The cloud was built for scale, and there really is nolimit. Some of the largest Web 2.0 applications are run on thecloud—for instance, WordPress uses Amazon’s S3 for storage." Withpotential for additional storage and servers to go online globally, thethreat of reaching a saturation point seems far off.  

A changein the role of IT departments is an inevitable outcome of thecloud-computing movement. How will IT managers react as they see moreand more applications moving out of their direct control and into thecloud? During the SIIA panel, Frons agreed that there has been sometrepidation from data center managers at The Times as the long-termimpact of cloud computing is assessed.

However, Smart Online’sCarr sees the shift as a play to what should be the strengths of the ITdepartment. "Cloud computing lets IT focus less on day-to-dayadministration and more on policy," he says. Rather than spending timepurchasing, deploying, and maintaining servers and software, ITmanagers are free to focus on higher-value activities.

Carmelagrees. "As IT managers have more experience in using SaaS, they arebecoming more receptive to it. It allows them to focus on the bigimpact of IT; they have more systems to manage rather than just bootingservers."

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