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Yahoo7 CTO Paul Russell on the media giant's stack overhaul

George Nott | July 25, 2017
Switches out PHP framework running on virtual machines for Node.js on Docker containers.


Credit: Paul Russell's LinkedIn account 

In the highly competitive online news industry, readers are unforgiving of sluggish sites, poor user experience and dated features.

Advertisers too want well-designed webpages that will give their spots the most eyeballs and engagement.

Yahoo7 – a 50:50 joint venture between Seven West Media and troubled US tech company Yahoo – is one of the most viewed online channels in Australia, featuring in Nielsen’s top ten ranking alongside the likes of Facebook, Google and Instagram. Its news sites are the seventh most popular in Australia.

Despite reaching 9.5 million Australians every month, Yahoo7 sought to maintain and improve its popularity by making its suite of sites more user-friendly and even faster.

Achieving that aim has required a complete rebuild of the technology stack behind its seven consumer sites, and the reskilling of an entire IT team. At the helm is CTO Paul Russell, who previously served as head of technology at Network Ten and CIO for Fairfax Digital, who says: “This rebuild will be a game-changer”.

 

Frustrating framework

For the last six years, Yahoo7 had been running its sites on a custom PHP framework on virtual machines.

“It was considerably old and inefficient to work in and the sites weren't particularly fast. It was showing its age,” Russell told CIO Australia.

The framework was also frustrating the release of new site features.

“We were building every website individually. They weren't sharing anything between them. So when we came up with a great new feature we had to go and implement it on every site which is an inefficient way of doing things,” Russell says.

About a year ago, a solution was sought that would allow the 40-strong tech team to do less “bread and butter website development” and “create time for more innovative features”.

The answer, initially, was more PHP. Another internal Yahoo framework was considered, but it proved complicated and not fit-for-purpose. “A bit of a false start,” Russell says.

Quickly, the ‘more PHP’ option was dropped for Node.js running on containers.

“It's great to be able to share a language between the front end and the back end. It’s no longer just something to use to make the front end a little bit more functional. It’s a lot more mature, and the performance benefits are great as well,” says Russell.

For each site, the new framework allows page components can be reused which reduces development time and maintenance overheads.

Node.js has “absolutely come of age” in recent years, as Russell puts it. The likes of Walmart, Netflix, LinkedIn, PayPal, Groupon and eBay all utilising it in some form.

The overhaul has also seen a shift to containers, with Docker. This allows for the quicker spinning up of environments, and an ability to scale fast, essential when handling the huge spikes in traffic Yahoo7 experiences for breaking news stories.

 

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