For a digital media behemoth like Times Internet, with 38 different brands under its umbrella (each with its own balance sheets, budgets, unique requirements and business nuances), managing IT infrastructure can be quite a complex and daunting task. However, Sumit Malhotra, the company’s VP – Technology, managing the IT infrastructure for its various digital properties, including TOI, ET, Magic Bricks, Gaana, Timesjob, Navbharat Times, etc. has managed to simplify and streamline the entire backend IT.
Around a year and half back, Malhotra started working on assessment of various IT services which are rendered to various businesses via in-house and third party services to identify areas of improvement for better ROI and Performance. The exercise not just resulted in savings of over $1.5 million but highlighted the need for deployment, continuous monitoring and assessment via single pane of glass. What initially started off as Third Party Service assessment tool has now expanded into a centralized console that pretty much caters to all the IT infrastructure requirements of the company. This was the genesis of the in-house built central console, calledKeystone.
According to Malhotra, the key services available through Keystone include Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) (provisioning servers/VMs/storage management/load balancers, etc.), Third Party Software as a Service (SaaS), monitoring, health management (health assessment, dashboards capturing systems/applications health), billing, service provider assessment, CICD pipeline. There are plans to have more services/features to be made available through Keystone going forward.
“Considering we have so many business entities, co-ordinating with each one separately is very difficult and complex. Also, ensuring compliance and security can be a big challenge as how do you control what each one is doing. Therefore, it’s very important for us to manage things centrally. We wanted Keystone to be a one-point stop where all the people can just go and request what they want,” explains Malhotra.
One of the most interesting and innovative aspects of the system is the orchestration layer, which does the provisioning. It aggregates and gives the users the option to choose IaaS offerings from different cloud vendors besides Times Internet’s own private cloud, right on the Keystone platform. Currently, the cloud vendors whose services are available through Keystone include On Premise Cloud, AWS, and Digital Ocean.
This is how it works – today if any of the Times Internet businesses, for instance let’s say Gaana, wants to spin-off 100 servers, all the Site Availability Engineer (SAE) in-charge needs to do is go to the Keystone website, choose the OS, choose whether database server or application server required, choose the datacentre location for hosting the server, do price comparisons between the different DCs, choose the cloud vendor and the server is made available.
According to Malhotra, it is as simple and similar to someone going to AWS, choosing the server they want and buying from there, except that here on Keystone the Times Internet users will have a whole lot of other options to choose from besides AWS. The tool allows users to make an informed decision of the premium they are paying while choosing a third party provider.
The availability of AWS services through Keystone, though, is a big draw. While there are around 80 services that AWS offers in the market, currently Keystone provisions for the top three services that people use at AWS – which are spinning off machines, attaching more storage to it and then serving them through a load balancer so that traffic can be distributed. While starting with these three services, Malhotra plans to add more services from AWS to be provisioned through Keystone as and when the need is felt.
“While we have our own private cloud, we don’t want to control and dictate who the businesses want to go with. The intent is to give freedom and flexibility to the business units to make their own choice and go outside and take services from others if they find them to be better for their requirements and more cost effective,” says Malhotra.
Since Times Internet businesses have the option of taking service from the company’s private cloud as well as from public cloud vendors like AWS and Digital Ocean, it poses one key question – doesn’t this then pose a threat to the significant investments that the company has made into its private cloud in the last 9-10 years. The company’s private cloud setup is pretty big with 9,000 machines spread across two datacentres and another third one coming up.
“Its not that we are trying to compete with the likes of big giants like AWS. We are just trying to help our businesses to do what they are trying to do in the most efficient manner, ensuring uptime and ROI. There are many services that run through AWS that we don’t even recommend our businesses to do internally. So, while on one hand, we are competing with AWS, on the other we are also partnering with them as we cannot possibly offer all the services internally and nor does it make business sense. Our strategy is to identify those areas where we can out-beat them on cost and performance and we push only those internally,” explains Malhotra.
Malhotra admits that while he does want more traffic to come to the private cloud, ultimately it is sheer business sense and ROI that ultimately prevail over in dictating the choice for the business users.
Talking of business sense and ROI, Keystone ensures that the businesses making the investments should be able to take informed decisions by providing price and cost comparisons for provisioning a service internally vs. with each of the cloud vendors listed on Keystone. Considering the pricing and billing complications associated with public cloud offerings, a transparent price comparison comes as a huge help in taking the right decision for the business users. Routing the provisioning ensures through Keystone further ensures that even if the businesses choose to go outside, they do so within the required framework to ensure security and compliance as everything is centrally managed. This also eliminates the risk of proliferation of shadow IT within the company.
While the orchestration layer is one of the key components of Keystone, Malhotra insists that the intent was not just to provide an orchestration layer, but to build something which is productive and which solves business problems. System currently solves many business problems like monitoring, performance, service provider assessments, billing, etc.
One of the biggest challenges that Keystone has helped Malhotra resolve is simplifying the whole billing process. While the bill is generated centrally by the central IT team, the costs need to be allocated to the different business units in proportion to their consumption of the various IT resources. Now, through Keystone the businesses can see their utilization of the different IT resources and how much they are spending on what resources, helping them optimize their costs.
Overall, Keystone has simplified and made seamless the whole process of provisioning and managing of the IT infrastructure across various Times Internet entities. As opposed to earlier where the users had to raise tickets and lot of requests would go back and forth, things are now managed in an automated fashion through the central console, making the whole process much more efficient.