The technology that empowers real-time journalism

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Anna MacLachlan
July 15, 2015

We’re more engaged online than ever before, especially when it comes to consuming news. If you work with online media brands, you’re well aware that the way readers engage with news events is changing.

The internet “thinks on its feet,” and media sites need to keep pace. The prevalence of smartphones lets people react to breaking news in real time. A rising trend of “citizen journalism” means individuals are tweeting, taking and searching for photos, streaming video, and are constantly accessing media sites, hungry for the latest updates.

How do news publishers make sure they’re keeping up with the lightning speed at which information is accessed and shared online? Many media companies are already using tactics to stay relevant and keep readers engaged. While paying a staff of world-class reporters is key, companies also need to invest in technology that will allow them to keep up with the pace of news cycles. It’s important that their development teams have the right tools at their disposal — tools that will help them remain agile and build relevant products for their readers. One of the most powerful tools they can use is a modern content delivery network (CDN).

A CDN’s ability to keep content updated in real time is a huge business benefit for media brands. A CDN not only keeps web performance high during traffic spikes, it also guarantees that readers can access content instantly. If you’re a news publisher, this can help you meet your readers’ high expectations (and low tolerance for slowness) when they visit your site.

To do this well, a CDN needs to have a few key qualities, including prioritizing site uptime and performance, the ability to make updates and serve content instantly, and total visibility into logs and performance analytics.

Below, Fastly’s media customers discuss how our CDN has helped them stay relevant in the age of real-time journalism. Read full case studies from our customers.

Reporting in real time and improving the reader experience

Current events are always evolving, so it’s important that headlines, articles, images, and streaming video can be updated as news changes. Surprisingly, this is not as easy as it sounds — many media companies have struggled in the past to be able to cache and purge content on their site, leaving readers with a stale article that’s a few minutes (or hours) old.

With Fastly’s Instant Purge, publishers can remove outdated content instantly, as it changes — in 150 milliseconds, so readers always see the latest updates. Matthew O’Brien, Software Architect at the Guardian, noted the importance of being able to clear the cache in this way; the feature was actually necessary to get his editorial team on board with investing in a CDN.

“If breaking news happens and it isn’t on our site within seconds, visitors will go elsewhere,” he said. “With Fastly, updates are reflected on our site pages within milliseconds.”

Kathleen Vignos, Director of Engineering at WIRED, says Fastly helps her team stay one step ahead of the technology curve. “[WIRED] needs to be able to update in real time, and as news goes viral, it is critical for us to have more control over how our content is served," Kathleen explains. She also said that a modern CDN like Fastly is a “critical part of the toolkit for publishers.”

“[On Fastly], we can serve information to our readers in real time, and it’s great,” said Harry Guillermo, Senior Developer at Fast Company. He agreed that a modern CDN — and the ability to push content changes instantly — is critical to journalism, and “should be a standard for all media sites.” Harry noted that “readers need content to be delivered in real time. No one wants to wait. If you’re a media company and not using a modern CDN, you’re not providing the best experience for your readers."

Keeping up during newsworthy events

Editors at media companies must be able to maintain a fast-paced editorial cycle that allows for constant, instant updates. CDNs guarantee that the changes they make on the editorial backend — whether it’s fixing a typo or updating breaking news as it unfolds — gets reflected on the site.

As Julie Sommerville, VP of Engineering at Business Insider, said, “Fastly gives us a significant competitive edge. Our editorial process is extremely iterative, and Fastly lets us make and deploy changes instantly, ensuring our readers see the most up-to-date content.”

Media companies also struggle with handling an influx of views during a major news event. For example, WIRED hosted a live blog during the highly anticipated Apple Watch announcement. Because this was a major event for the tech community, it was critical for them to provide their readers with real-time updates.

Zack Tollman, Lead Engineer at WIRED, explained, “Fastly effectively handled the higher levels of traffic we experienced during the Apple Watch announcement.” Using Fastly’s stale-while-revalidate feature to serve readers slightly outdated content while the cached content was refreshed, WIRED knew readers would never see errors. Zack described stale-while-revalidate as one of Fastly’s “most exciting features.” He said, “It allowed us to successfully serve the live blog while constantly updating its content, ensuring our readers had access to the freshest content without seeing errors."

When the royal baby George Alexander Louis was born in 2013, the Guardian's traffic spiked from an average of 400 requests per second to over 1,000 requests per second. Fastly shielded the Guardian's origin servers from the hundreds of thousands of new requests pouring in, maintaining site uptime and delivering consistent performance for readers around the world. The company’s software architect, Matthew O’Brien, said that it’s difficult to predict news events, but Fastly helps them prepare accordingly.

“We have Fastly as an edge cache provider to take the strain off our origin. For us, it means that no matter how many people visit our site, our servers will never be overwhelmed," he said.

Real-time insight for reduced overhead costs

Shielding sites from spikes in traffic helps improve a reader’s experience, but it also gives media brands an opportunity to scale while reducing infrastructure costs. Without a CDN in place, businesses would have to consider additional servers to accommodate increasing traffic on websites and mobile apps.

WIRED’s Kathleen Vignos described how Fastly’s ability to shield WIRED from traffic spikes helps them maintain uptime without adding to infrastructure costs: "There are cloud-based server solutions that allow you to spin up new servers when you need them, but why would you want to be managing additional servers for high-traffic events when you could have Fastly taking care of that for you?"

Fastly allows media companies to effectively handle traffic without increasing costs — and, in the case of Upworthy, reducing costs. Pavel Repin, Senior Engineer at Upworthy, told us that Fastly has allowed them to run “a much leaner setup.” Thanks to Fastly’s real-time performance analytics, Upworthy was able to gain insight into site performance and make the necessary infrastructure changes, allowing them to scale down. They have since lowered origin load, enabling them to cut their Heroku dyno usage in half, “reducing infrastructure costs,” according to Ryan Resella, Senior Engineer at Upworthy.

Upworthy hosts entirely on cloud-based services, and the ability to view Fastly’s stats alongside other cloud providers gives their team a holistic account of site health. This gives their developers an understanding of what’s happening on their site, which in turn lets them make decisions for how to optimize the reader experience.

As Tim noted, the main reason they built Upworthy’s in-house monitoring system alongside Fastly’s analytics was “to help with the day-to-day operations of the editorial team, but [also] to track our health metrics, debug and diagnose tech problems as they happen. The Fastly Dashboard is really useful — when we are dealing with a spike or instability, Fastly is one of our go-to places for monitoring system health."

Real-time comments and targeted updates

User-generated content (UGC) is crucial for a media brand, but it can present challenges to technical teams. Legacy CDNs are unable to cache content that changes frequently and unpredictably, which is unfortunately the nature of UGC — so requests for that content have to go back to origin. With Fastly, sites can cache this type of content, allowing readers to watch and participate as discussions unfold on an article in real time.

Here an example of how it works: Using Fastly’s surrogate keys, Business Insider caches portions of a page separately, displaying the latest comments on an article without having to purge the entire page. Upworthy uses surrogate keys to group different objects together with a single key — for example, all articles, authors, and topics related to the category “Environment” — and expire them all together with a single API call (as opposed to purging each individual URL, or purging the entire site).

As Tim Jones, former CTO at Upworthy, said, “Surrogate keys are [a] really important feature. They let us purge content for posts a little more gracefully than some of Fastly’s competitors.”

A personalized UX

Readers have come to expect tailored user experiences online, and modern CDNs like Fastly give media companies the opportunity to offer personalized content. This includes targeted content (such as ads) based on geo-location, or recommending articles based on past browsing preferences.

Business Insider, for example, uses Fastly to serve content to different types of users on their site — editors, logged-in readers, and guests who are visiting but don’t log in.

“Fastly lets us serve content from the edge that’s tailored to each type of user, ensuring a great experience for our readers while giving editors complete flexibility,” said VP of Engineering Julie Sommerville.

Fast Company plans to further personalize their site by letting readers log in to receive customized recommendations based on past articles they’ve enjoyed as well as their behavior on FastCompany.com. Because readers will have to log in to get custom content, Fast Company will use Fastly’s Transport Layer Security (TLS) to ensure that users’ private login information is protected. As their senior developer Harry Guillermo explained: “That’s why we need to offer the additional layer of security TLS provides. That, paired with a CDN that lets us cache closer to the user, gives us the competitive edge we need to offer readers content in real time while protecting their personal information.”

One of our goals at Fastly is to help your site not only thrive in the age of real-time journalism, but to make sure your readers have instant access to the content they want, when they want it. For further reading, check out the full case studies from these customers.

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