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Rebuilding Radio NZ – Part 1

This is the first in a series of posts explaining how (and why) we are rebuilding www.radionz.co.nz. I’ll be examining the technology behind it and looking at some of the difficult choices we’ve made along the way.

Warning

This post is about a specific site with its own special functional requirements and traffic loads. radionz.co.nz is a public broadcaster’s website that includes news, audio and content related to on-air programmes. Traffic loads are very peaky (and high).

This series of posts should NOT taken as advice for or against any particular system. It deals with our specific pain-points and how we are solving them.

You should do your own research and assessment before choosing any CMS or development framework. A good starting point is Strategic Content Management on A List Apart.

Beginnings

Since October 2005 the site has been running on MySource Matrix (now Squiz Matrix). We started the build of the site around Easter that year, meaning we’ve used the system for six years – not a bad life for any piece of software. We know it very well.

Matrix was chosen after an exhaustive process where we evaluated dozens of web CMSs and called for a Request for Proposal (we got over 40 responses). The project took a year to complete as we had no existing infrastructure or business processes to support the content we wanted to publish.
We ran the site in-house for 3 months to bed in new publishing processes and iron out any bugs.
The primary reasons we chose Matrix was depth and breadth of functionality and the ability to build sites without needing a programming resource.
The previous version of the site was based on a custom built CMS (PHP), and the requirement to have access to a programmer was a constraint we wanted to avoid for the next version of the site. The only custom work was a Matrix asset to support audio content.
With Matrix we were able to quickly build almost anything we could conceive and have it live quite quickly. We also had the ability to try stuff out, modify it, and then release, all without a code editor in sight.

In five years we grew the site from having a rolling one-week back-catalogue of audio content for some programmes, to having over three years of back-content for most programmes. Traffic increased 10-fold.

In late 2009 we started to experience some pain, and by early 2010 we made the decision to move on from Matrix. This was not a decision made quickly or lightly, and it was based on deeply pragmatic reasons that I’ll explain in future posts.
The first major reason was increasing difficulty in managing our content – at the time we had about 5,500 individual programme pages (today it’s about 7,000). Moving around the site between pages, and the time required to update content was limiting the amount of content we could publish and causing frustration for editors.

The second was performance. We have a lot of content that is updated frequently – a fast moving news story could easily be updated 10 times in a morning – and the system was not able to cope with our requirement to refresh the caches for these pages for every update (more detail on this in part 3), at least not with the hardware we had at our disposal.
You could say that we outgrew the system. Not because there was necessarily anything wrong with it per se, but because our operation had grown in a direction where the system was no longer a good fit. Pragmatic, as I said.
Today (April 2011) our site is running partly in Matrix and partly in the new system (called ELF). This has presented some challenges both in integration (keeping the experience seamless for visitors), migration of content, and in the training of content editors. I’ll cover all this in a later post.
In the next post I’ll talk about the birth of ELF.

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