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UK Publisher chooses lightweight application server to improve scalability

Oracle's WebLogic turned out to be a bit heavy for the needs of UK newspaper publisher Associated Newspapers, who switched to SpringSource tc Server last summer. The switch has shaved off a big chunk of licensing costs as well as CPU usage.

When running highly-trafficked Web applications that need to scale at a moment's notice, open source application servers can sometimes meet a company's needs better than their commercial counterparts. Associated Newspapers in the UK recently came to this conclusion when they tossed out Oracle's WebLogic for the more lightweight SpringSource tc Server.

Associated Newspapers Ltd. (ANL) is one of the UK's largest national newspaper publishers, responsible for the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday and the free title, Metro. While running its online editions on WebLogic application servers, the Daily Mail and the Mail Online experienced around a 300% growth in traffic over a two year period. Mail Online CTO, Shaun Perkinson said the company had trouble scaling.

"It was becoming difficult for us to scale our instances on WebLogic because it's a full-blown application server," said Perkinson, who was then head of development for ANL. "We were starting to hit bottlenecks in terms of CPU usage on the servers."

The team realized before long that they only really needed the servlet container component of the application server. Perkinson said they considered looking for a strong servlet container to run in production, but could not do so as ANL required that they have 24/7 support for whichever system they went with.

ANL developers began testing on JBoss and Apache Tomcat before settling on tc Server from SpringSource. Given how much everyone liked Tomcat, Perkinson said it was not difficult to pick tc Server, which is an enterprise version of Tomcat, the Apache Foundation's open source servlet container. They had also looked at GlassFish, but could not determine that Sun had done any particular optimization of their open source application server for the UltraSPARC processors ANL had implemented.

It took one day to do the production switchover, though Perkinson said there was a two-week sprint leading up to it. The project started from the development team. First the team downloaded tc Server and began testing their applications—most of which are Spring Java and Hibernate-based—locally. When the development team all had Tomcat running locally and the applications ran without issue, they moved into the sprint cycle and began developing against it. When they were due to deliver, SpringSource consultants came in to review the implementation and configuration. When it was time to go live, it was more or less a matter of throwing the switch. This was last July.

The results were substantial. After the switchover was complete CPU usage dropped 50%, Perkinson said. He was even able to get away with running the Mail Online with two fewer instances than were in production beforehand. Adding additional server instances is a matter of about 15 minutes, where it used to take half a day.

Perkinson did experience configuration challenges. "The only thing that caused a bit of contention was that we're talking seven different development teams potentially deploying onto these production servers all having slightly different configurations in their applications," said Perkinson. "And we set out to create one generic configuration across all of our instances, he said"

In an effort to make things easier for the operations guys, there was some work to be done in getting all the applications running under a common configuration.

Perkinson said that ANL did not get much benefit out of the AMS monitoring server. In terms of value, Perkinson said ANL has saved about half of what it originally paid for application server licensing.

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