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Delivering the news agenda.

News media has evolved rapidly in recent years, driven largely by new technologies that have enabled media to move from siloed organisations each specialising in their own medium, be it print, radio or television, to become highly integrated operations operating across multi platforms. The speed with which news is gathered and disseminated has increased rapidly, as has the way the viewers not only consume content, but also interact with it and drive the news agenda. The web presence of news media today has shifted from being a complementary addition to traditional channels to become a channel in its own right. For broadcaster Al Arabiya, part of the MBC Group, web presence is an integral part of its operations, and delivering the full spectrum of news online requires a robust content management system (CMS) to support it. The Al Arabiya online news service ( was launched in 2004 initially in Arabic, and was joined by an English-language service in 2007, and Persian and Urdu services in 2008. As the broadcaster's online operations expanded however, the CMS had not kept up. The broadcaster's previous CMS had been developed in house, and while it was a good fit with the original requirements, it was becoming a burden to manage code that had been developed by different people over the space of five years. As the news team expanded, the site was also struggling to scale. A further issue was the high profile of Al Arabiya -- as a news organisation in the Middle East, the website had suffered sustained hacking attempts during political crises in the region, and was also under constant politically-motivated DDoS attack. Karim Morgan CMS Architect and Project Leader for the Magnolia implementation at Al Arabiya explains: "The old CMS was completely unscalable -- it was a good CMS, it was completely homegrown, we did the best we could to make sure it was scalable to an extent, but it came to a point where there was not much we could do to help. The team was growing, there was too much load on the CMS, we had to get something that was more robust." Al Arabiya began the search for a replacement CMS. The requirements for the new system were clear -- the organisation needed a system that would scale both in terms of the number of users posting content to the system and in terms of visitor traffic, that would enable content to be posted to the web as quickly as possible, be secure and robust enough to withstand cyber attacks and would be easy to maintain and have good support. "The main requirement for a CMS in the news business is speed of publishing. We are a news website, so we want to make sure that once we get our news, that it is published online immediately," Morgan says. "Traffic is another major factor -- we were looking for a CMS that can handle the huge loads of traffic that we were getting on the website; and traffic in terms of safe traffic, and also attack traffic. Being a news website, we are constantly under attack, so security and robustness is definitely something that we were looking for." The CMS would also need to be capable of handling a wide range of content -- including text, images, video, documents and so on, from a wide range of sources. The system would need the flexibility to integrate with Al Arabiya's broadcast systems, and it would also need to be platform-independent, so that journalists could access it from any device. A number of specialist CMS solutions were assessed, but Al Arabiya opted to go with Magnolia, an open source, Java-based solution, which was already in use by parent organisation MBC Group. Morgan had led the Magnolia project for the deployment, and says that it made good sense to use Magnolia again. Al Arabiya selected Swiss systems integrator Tinext to implement a custom solution built on Magnolia CMS. As an open source solution, Al-Arabiya has a licence for the CMS, along with an enterprise support agreement with Magnolia and a maintenance agreement with Tinext. Al Arabiya is able to access the open source community for updates and other support, and it also offers the flexibility for Al Arabiya to customise the solution as it likes. "Magnolia was very flexible to allow us to do whatever we wanted to do, but there's no such thing as a CMS that gives you everything out of the box. The key is to find a CMS that gives you the flexibility to build on top of it. We do have a fair amount of customisation on top of Magnolia such as commenting modules, moderation modules, social media integration -- this stuff doesn't come pre-built in the version of Magnolia we are using," Morgan says. "Open source is very important because we wanted to get community support. That is a key factor. I am a very big fan of open source communities in general, open source communities drive the best products around the world and you get the best out of it. With Magnolia specifically, it had the best of both worlds -- you have the support of the open source community, and it all also had the enterprise level support from Magnolia itself. This was a win-win situation," he adds. The deployment of Magnolia proved to be a big success, with the system now being used to deliver five websites in four different languages. The CMS handles 70 million page views per month, up to 20,000 concurrent visitors at any time, with as many as 200 new articles posted to the site every day. New content, which used to take 10-15 minutes to get a feature online, can now go live within three minutes, with some content going live in under 30 seconds. Load time for viewing pages has been cut by one third. Based on the requirements of the 50-60 journalists using the system, a custom dashboard has been developed, to cater to dynamic, non-linear editorial processes, which ensures that when a story emerges it is automatically passed to the right people for additions, translation and checking. The CMS also has a strong integration with Al Arabiya's broadcast solutions, so that web editors are able to access broadcast content and put it online. "The breaking news that shows on TV, the news ticker shows instantly on the website. Another integration is the video, we use AVID on the TV side, and our multimedia team pick the videos from AVID, we have an integration with the AVID interface, they click a button, literally, and an article is automatically created with that video built into it," Morgan explains. An important part of the deployment, which was influenced by the experience with, was reliance on the content delivery network (CDN) to improve availability and performance. CDNs, highly distributed networks of server nodes in multiple data centres, usually sourced from specialist CDN operators, are used by many organisations, including media, to ensure high availability and high performance for rich content. The organisation's CDN could be used to take the load off of Al Arabiya's CMS. "We had a very good architecture with MBC, but we didn't really understand the business, and how the content was going to grow -- we learnt a lot from our experience," Morgan says. "For Al Arabiya, we minimised the number of content nodes that we are using on the CMS level, and did all the heavy lifting through the content delivery networks. We optimised our pages to be as static as possible, and all the dynamic components are being hosted somewhere else. Having static pages means that the CDN can cache this content to a very extreme extent, you don't have to go back to the origin server to fetch the content, which means you can scale down on your architecture." The content delivery network is also used to help mitigate against the DDoS attacks that are targeted at Al Arabiya. Morgan says that 'clean' traffic to the site is about 10Mbps, while DDoS traffic attack is about 100 times more than that. Through segregation of the nodes on the CDN, coupled with a DDoS protection service, Al Arabiya has been able to maintain 100% uptime since launching on Magnolia. In future, the broadcaster is looking to upgrade to a newer version of Magnolia, once the vendor moves its status from community version to enterprise version. Upgrading to a newer version of Magnolia that will deliver features that will help Al Arabiya to continue to deliver on its plans for evolving news services. In February, the broadcaster announced the launch of a new channel, Al Hadath, which is dedicated to 24-hour rolling news coverage, with no pre-recorded content. The channel will focus on news events as they happen, and for the website, that will mean being able to integrate things such as live video streaming of events and more input from social media, so that it can interact with viewers around the world. Morgan explains: "The channel is highly focused on this, and it needs the website to keep up with these dynamics."

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Date:May 7, 2014
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