Migrating to the Cloud: Transforming our IT backbone

It cloud image

By Mark Buckshon

Publisher, Ontario Construction News

The bad pun to follow: “The cloud lifted when I discovered the Cloud,” belies one of the most relieving and satisfying discoveries since we launched Ontario Construction News five years ago.

Last week, I solved a problem that could have (again to use a bad pun), sent this business crashing into the abyss: The failure of our computer/internet and server infrastructure.

After all, Ontario Construction News, the province’s first daily digital construction newspaper, relies on the Internet and Information Technology (IT) infrastructure to maintain its publishing schedule and reliability. The challenges are compounded by the requirement to retain incredible volumes of data, well, forever. We certainly cannot un-publish the Certificates of Substantial Performance (CSP) and other legal notices required by the Ontario Construction Act.

These issues didn’t seem to be a big concern half a decade ago, when we added files and directories to our single dedicated server at a generally reliable and not-to-expensive Internet Service Provider (ISP).

However, things started getting wonky last year. Repeated crashes and system failures occurred; generally lasting not more than a few hours and often solved with a simple reboot. But things were going to get worse. And I needed to find an answer to the problem because both Random Access Memory (RAM) and overall disk storage capacity were reaching their limits – and we were adding more and more data each day.

Like many efficient businesses, our IT department is offshore – specifically, two highly efficient and reasonably priced contractors, one based in Bangladesh and the other in the Philippines. They are on duty virtually 24-7, for a monthly cost of about $400 (generous pay for the contractors in their local markets).

We brainstormed solutions, and initially decided on a plan to switch to a different ISP with better storage/memory capacity. By splitting some of our high demand publications (notably OCN) from the others (this business operates websites serving several different US and Canadian regional markets) I figured we could reduce plenty of system stress and give ourselves room for sustainability. This decision was made even more urgent when our original ISP informed us there was disk damage and everything would need to be moved to a new server.

That switchover last November proved to be the biggest IT crisis I’ve experienced in operating this business. The sites went down and data was lost, and while we had backups, the process of restoring things (after getting a quick patch to alleviate downtime to a half-day or so) took at least a couple of weeks. During this recovery, there were additional crashes, and I experienced several sleepless nights, texting furiously with the ISPs and offshore contractors as we worked to sort out the mess and ensure that we didn’t lose a day’s publication schedule; obviously critical considering the legal notices we publish.

Eventually, we had a new server and things started running smoothly again.

Then, about three weeks ago, I was hit by another IT sledgehammer. The new ISP’s computer server sent out a warning notice advising that we had reached almost 90 per cent of disk capacity. In other words, the rebuilt servers were nearly full. And our ISP told us they cannot just add additional memory/capacity to the server.

Our IT consultants reviewed things and discovered that the backup files, huge and growing even larger each day, were the culprit. The solution: Perhaps we could move the backup files off the server to some relatively inexpensive storage space.

We set up the system to upload to Google Drive, Google’s consumer-friendly cloud storage tool, which we’ve used internally for editorial and operations management since the start of OCN. In theory it seemed like a good idea – but I quickly discovered that upload times were crazy slow – more than two days to move the massive 180 GB backup files. Worse, the scale of the upload meant our server’s circuit breakers kicked in, cancelling the transfer.

Then, in thinking about how I solved an unrelated IT problem, I came up with the answer. Could the answer be in the Cloud? Perhaps we could et up the backup files within a cloud-based server.

There are are several cloud server providers such as Amazon, Digital Ocean and Microsoft. The cloud-server infrastructure set-up is way over my head technologically (heck I’m a publisher not an IT specialist myself).

It didn’t take long, however, to confirm with my offshore IT specialists that they could handle the job. And it took me even less time to decide I would use Google Cloud for this service.

My biases for Google are not secret. About a decade ago, I became a Product Expert for the company’s third-party ad serving program, Google AdSense. While we sell virtually all of our advertising directly, AdSense’s related ad management platform, Google Ad Manager, has helped us to co-ordinate and manage our digital display advertising inventory. The Product Expert status has resulted in invitations to several expense-paid meet-ups and summits – in fact, as you read this I’ll be at one of these events in Austin Texas.

At one of these summits in New York about six years ago, I decided that I had learned enough about Google (Alphabet) to make a significant personal investment in the company. This has proven to be a wise choice – the capital gains certainly have become a meaningful part of my personal net worth.

So, within five minutes, I set up the Google Cloud account to give my offshore contractor in Bangladesh access to the system, and within a few hours, he had set up the backup server. In our initial test, the downloading that had taken more than two days with Drive concluded within about 30 minutes.

The contractor is now reconfiguring the Google Cloud account to handle our other content and sites and I expect the transfer/migration process will be completed by the time you read this notice.  We’ve calculated that our operating costs will be similar or lower than with our two current ISPs. As for reliability and scalability, this is a no-brainer.

What lessons can you learn from this story?

First, if you are in business, while having on-site or dedicated conventional offsite servers sometimes makes sense, especially for security, there is a good case for considering cloud-based systems, especially if you need reliable scale and don’t want to worry about administering IT infrastructure.

Second, you can certainly achieve meaningful economic savings with offshore IT contractors. There, again, are risks here – it is good to plan for redundancy and more importantly, you shouldn’t give away the keys to your IT store without truly satisfying yourself about the consultants’ reliability and ethics. But if you get it right, you’ll save plenty of money and if you ever have sleepless nights, you’ll know someone is there – in their daytime – to help you out.

Finally, although it is early going, I have found Google’s Cloud server to be easy-to-use (for someone with IT expertise, of course) and implement, and the costs are highly reasonable. Accordingly, I’ll be able to enjoy my time in Texas as the business runs smoothly in Canada, with some solid overseas support.

Mark Buckshon is president of the Construction News and Report Group, which publishers Ontario Construction News. He can be reached by email at buckshon@ontarioconstructionnews.com.

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