When storms hit, the Weather Company needs the cloud

The company behind the Weather Channel saves money and scales with the cloud

When hurricane winds are bearing down and water is rising across streets and into houses, no one at the Weather Channel wants to be thinking about server capacity or if their website can handle a twentyfold increase in traffic.

When major storms hit, the people at the Weather Channel want to focus on the science behind the weather and getting information out to those who need it most.

That's why the Weather Company has gone all-in with the cloud.

"For us, the days the infrastructure is the most tasked are the days you need to be focused on the business and not on the back end," said Landon Williams, vice president of infrastructure architecture and services at The Weather Company, the parent company behind The Weather Channel, weather.com and Weather Underground. "We have to make sure we perform the best when the weather is at its worst. Our whole ecosystem has to handle it."

landon williams weather company Sharon Gaudin/Computerworld

Landon Williams, vice president of Infrastructure Architecture and Services at The Weather Company. 

Three and a half years ago, the Weather Company began a migration to the cloud because it needed to be able to effortlessly scale up to handle huge increases in traffic when big storms hit. Some storms caused site traffic to increase by 20 times, according to Williams.

Jagmeet Chawla, chief architect for the Weather Company, agreed that the company had to figure out a way to handle massive increases in traffic.

Generally, they deal with about 125 million unique visitors a month. However, if a big storm strikes, they could get that number in a single day. For some storms, the sites have gotten as many as 30 million visits in an hour.

Aside from the need to scale, the Weather Company also wanted to focus its technical staff on work that will add value to the business, instead of simply keeping the IT trains running.

"When you look at our size, we're 1,600 people," Williams said. "We're a big company in reach but not a big company in people. We are a weather intelligence, analytics company. We're a data science company. We're very good at that. I think we should get out of the data center business and focus on the decision making, the weather storytelling side of business. Running a Dell server really well doesn't make our business better."

Williams wanted to hand over the server-running tasks to a cloud vendor so his workers could focus on getting the apps and services that the business needs to run and stay ahead of its competitors.

Williams and his team also had to deal with the fact that after two acquisitions, the Weather Company owned 13 data centers spread across the country. Those data centers ran the gamut from top-tier managed facilities to closets with eight- or nine-year-old servers stuffed inside.

the lab weather company The Weather Company

The Weather Company, parent company of the Weather Channel shown here, is 80% on the cloud, with plans to move the last 20% in the next 18 months.

To get to the cloud, the Weather Company decided to start out using Amazon Web Services (AWS).

Today, 80% of the company's services and apps are running on the cloud, and the final 20% are expected to migrate to the cloud over the next 18 months.

And the company is saving money.

Williams noted that three years ago, it was about 10% cheaper for the company to run its own data centers. However, with an approximately 10% price cut that AWS made in April 2014, it was suddenly 5% cheaper to run on the AWS cloud. With subsequent price cuts, it's now 15% cheaper, according to Williams. It's also easier for the tech team with the cloud.

"It's night-and-day different," Williams said. "We don't scramble and run around and think about what we'll turn off if [traffic] goes too high. What was the high-water mark last time? What will we do differently this time? We just don't have to do that anymore. It's the difference between not sleeping and sleeping."

Architecting an insurance plan

While Williams decided to start with AWS, he wanted to make sure the Weather Company's systems could handle multiple cloud vendors. It was an insurance plan.

"We've always architected to be able to move on to another vendor without significant changes," he explained. "What if Amazon ever had a systemwide failure? What if Amazon stops innovating or they change their business model and we don't want to be there? We wanted the resiliency and confidence that we could handle as many fault scenarios as we could think of."

Because of its scale, the Weather Company needed to make sure its systems never crashed, so it was worth it to work with more than one vendor.

That's why it's also started working with IBM-owned Softlayer Technologies.

Today, about 70% of the Weather Company's system is on AWS, another 10% is with Softlayer and 20% is still on the company's legacy data centers.

Some apps and services run on one platform but not the other. However, the company's most critical systems, such as its SUN (Storage Utility Network) data platform, run on both.

If Amazon had a major outage, the Weather Company's traffic would automatically shift to Softlayer. If Softlayer goes down, its work would shift to AWS.

"We don't force traffic in one direction," said Williams. "It's all automated where traffic should go based on rules and logic."

For instance, when a big storm, like Hurricane Joaquin, which battered the Carolinas earlier this month, is coming, the Weather Company might contact AWS and Softlayer and warn them that they likely will have to deal with some scaling of their systems.

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