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Mother Jones

Mother Jones is Using Commercial Support to Manage Open Source Drupal

How Acquia Hosting Is Helping Mother Jones Realize Its Social Publishing Goals

Mother Jones is a nonprofit news organization that specializes in investigative, political, and social justice reporting. There are currently two main “channels” of distribution: an award-winning bimonthly national magazine (paid circulation 220,000), and a website featuring new, original reporting 24/7.

Background

Mother Jones is a nonprofit news organization that specializes in investigative, political, and social justice reporting. There are currently two main “channels” of distribution: an award-winning bimonthly national magazine (paid circulation 220,000), and a website featuring new, original reporting 24/7.

Though Mother Jones was one of the first magazines to embrace the web—launching their site in 1993—in recent years the constraints of their old site proved too great for the quality and quantity of content, and the needs of its increasingly engaged readership. Open Source social publishing platforms appealed to Mother Jones, which was looking for the ability to publish content more efficiently. As an organization with a history of embracing online innovation, Mother Jones was aware of other online publications benefitting from social media functionality. Mother Jones sought to increase the loyalty and involvement of readers through community driven dialog and information sharing.

Turning to Drupal

Mother Jones examined a number of options, and selected Drupal. Mother Jones’ decision to use Drupal for their content management system (CMS) was based on several factors. Drupal offers a highly flexible appearance and layout. Drupal’s open architecture provides over 4,000 modules to choose from, allowing Mother Jones to incrementally add new functionality. Modular architecture is important for online publications; it allows innovations to be adopted quickly, without destabilizing
the overall site architecture. Many of these modules enable features that enhance the experience for readers, such as the ability to comment, discuss, and promote articles. Drupal is also uniquely suited in the sense that it represents an enthusiastic community-driven spirit which is aligned with Mother Jones’ publishing values. With the right platform in hand, Mother Jones retained a Drupal development team to host, build and support the site.

Challenges of Success

As Mother Jones implemented Drupal 5, it began to change its relationship with readers, and created opportunities to publish additional content. Despite these gains, the original Drupal implementation of MotherJones.com was hindered by several challenges. Promotion and rating tools that link to content from external sites were increasing the visibility of Mother Jones articles. As circulation increased, Mother Jones encountered unanticipated performance challenges (such as bots submitting spam comments), which caused significant increases in content submission and delivery. It became clear as visibility, traffic, page views and content aggregation all increased, that Mother Jones’ Drupal site hadn’t been implemented in a way that could meet demand.

It was generally understood that uptime and performance challenges were a result of how theming elements and modules were implemented. Unfortunately, the MotherJones.com site developer was unable to define the exact causality behind performance problems. Many important sources of information, such as raw web server, slow query and no-index database logs, weren’t readily available.

The development team attempted unsuccessfully to diagnose and isolate performance issues. A preset routine of troubleshooting steps was followed in the hopes that problems would be fixed in the process. This led to incomplete or inaccurate diagnostic conclusions, such as blaming traffic surges on search engines or spam bots. Simultaneously, the real culprits behind problems were left unchecked. In the case of poor diagnostic reviews of defective modules, content submissions were being lost.

Eventually, Mother Jones realized that their support needs were not being met. In order to reach success with Drupal, Mother Jones required a partner who specialized in providing robust, ongoing support. Specifically, they required a one-stop solution that could host their site directly, monitor and maintain site health through remote administration, and address problems with rapid precision. The search for a magic triangle of effective hosting–administration–support led Mother Jones to Acquia.

Working with Acquia

After conducting a 10-hour performance and scalability review, Acquia was retained to provide hosting, support and remote administration services. This particular support package combined the expertise of Acquia’s support team with the reliability of a robust diagnostics system. Remote administration services ensure that Mother Jones’ Drupal implementation receives patches, updates and security. Mother Jones gained what it had sought - a single provider to solve their code, configuration, maintenance, performance, scalability, and security issues.

Acquia is staffed with very knowledgeable Drupal experts. With previous Drupal support providers, troubleshooting was limited. It was based more on trial and error guesswork, and not a true understanding of the underlying systems. Identifying the source of problems took a long time; meanwhile we were suffering increasingly frequent episodes of website instability.

Fortunately for us, Acquia has demonstrated superior expertise in a very simple way - they excel at discovering and solving problems almost immediately. While our Drupal implementation is still a work in progress, Acquia has been responsive and targeted in their troubleshooting. That’s doubly important with hidden or indirect problems. It’s as if Acquia support engineers have an instinctual understanding of what is causing problems; they would return with effective solutions in record time, sometimes even before we had identified the problem.

Acquia also has the added benefit of working with a large, diverse body of customers, with online properties of all sizes. Our initial Drupal support team, both internally and our contracted talent, simply weren’t experienced at preparing an ironclad architecture that could withstand traffic intensive demands. Acquia clearly is experienced, and has specific strategies, testing procedures, and monitoring tools to ensure we can handle traffic loads today, tomorrow, and next year.

– Robert Wise, System Administrator at Mother Jones

Differentiating Acquia

Acquia understands its unique role as a commercial supporter of Open Source software. Drupal is prized not just for a stable platform and wealth of modules – it offers a viable enterprise-class solution that is void of software licensing and maintenance costs. While Acquia is staffed with world-class Drupal expertise, it does not own Drupal; Acquia cannot drive revenue through Drupal licensing, nor can it hide behind maintenance contracts and rigid proprietary limitations. Instead, Acquia is keenly aware that success must be measured in the quality of services it delivers. Because of this, customers consistently rank Acquia support above and beyond their previous software support model.

Commercial software vendors are driven to sell licenses and maintenance contracts. In contrast to this model, Acquia is driven to make sure that Open Source Drupal software works reliably, and that Drupal solutions are sensibly directed towards maximizing results. Furthermore, Acquia offers hosting, support and remote administration precisely because support can be best delivered in an environment where the provider also has close access (through hosting) and visibility (through remote administration).

Diagnosing and Treating MotherJones.com

Acquia quickly discovered that there were multiple problem areas behind Mother Jones’ Drupal challenges. “An important part of Acquia support resides in approach to monitoring and prevention,” said Barry Jaspan, Principal Engineer at Acquia. “Our success is based on discovering conflicts and issues - before they cause problems that are evident to our customers. By monitoring and optimizing Drupal sites in preventative ways, we help our customers avoid experiencing downtime and performance issues. Thanks to our diagnostic tools, we can preemptively address problem areas – and our customers can wind up benefitting from support in ways they aren’t aware of.

“In the case of Mother Jones, and other customers where we are looking at existing problems, we take a short term view of fixing problems without introducing new conflicts, while forming a long term plan for big picture improvements to put the site on a more stable track.”

Most immediately, Acquia identified that Mother Jones had only been allocated about 50% of the slices it required to meet traffic demands. With prolific and topical posting by contributing reporters, MotherJones.com has become very popular with search engine robots. While a testament to the value of site content, the increased search engine robot activity was straining Mother Jones’ web infrastructure – a point made more acute by the push for real time search results. In order to meet the demands of search engine robots, Acquia recommended performance and scalability adjustments, including adding new slices and cloud-based flexibility which would better balance traffic fluctuations.

Acquia worked with the MotherJones.com team to implement full page caching using a reverse proxy – which reduced load placed on the web server infrastructure by search engine robots, and improved performance for users. This improved Motherjones.com’s ability to withstand overall increases in search traffic, as well as traffic spikes caused by particularly popular articles.

Another set of issues was caused by custom changes made by Mother Jones to Drupal core, with the intent to make the .CSS behave more efficiently. In the process, resource contentions had inadvertently been introduced - actually making the site less efficient. Custom changes had also been made to the theme template. These template changes forced the site to make many redundant page loads, which overloaded Mother Jones’ web servers. Acquia was able to quickly identify and correct these issues.

The support team was also able to troubleshoot more obscure challenges, including page titles using non-ASCII characters creating a caching mismatch between Drupal and Apache. Finding this type of error could have been the equivalent of a haystack- needle search operation, but robust monitoring tools and deep Drupal experience allowed Acquia to quickly identify and rectify the issue.

Upgrading to Drupal 6

Acquia recently assisted Mother Jones with the process of upgrading from Drupal 5 to Drupal 6. Because of Open Source cost savings, Mother Jones had the budgetary resources to invest in their own internal talent. This in-house team was responsible for the day-to-day migration from Drupal 5 to 6, relying on Acquia for more strategic consultation.

MotherJones.com is in the process of making two important improvements. The Drupal 5 implementation was using extensive customization to meet very specific functionality requirements, particularly around theming. Because Drupal 6 offers more ways to customize features and theming, less manual (and potentially unstable) customizing is needed. Drupal 6 also represents a more mature platform release and provides functionality with even greater performance and scalability. Acquia has prodigiously identified areas of the site that require changes such as reducing the frequency of rebuilding cached tables. These changes enable the site to take better advantage of Drupal 6 features and performance.

Looking Forward

The upgrade from 5 to 6 was recently completed; Acquia is providing strategic consulting and support to the in-house team while the site continues to stabilize. Thanks to bringing together reliable hosting, responsive support, and effective remote administration tools, MotherJones.com is benefiting from ongoing improvements to performance and uptime, as Acquia helps identify and resolve issues. With MotherJones.com’s recent upgrade to Drupal 6, future efforts will be focused on further refining the newly upgraded site, while identifying opportunities to introduce new features and functions. Because of the flexible and constantly advancing nature of Drupal modules, Mother Jones can take innovate new ways to streamline the publishing workflow, and provide readers with new tools for interacting with content.

“Its important that we aren’t losing sight of the big picture,” says Robert Wise. “We had spent so much time trying to fix performance lag and site blackouts, that it was defining our relationship with our site. For a time, we were simply focused on trying to keep the site up, and frankly – we were souring towards the whole solution.

“Thankfully, Acquia has diagnosed the systemic problems with the site, and we’re making good progress toward stable operations. We can better focus on our original vision – adding new features and functionality that will improve both the user experience on our site, and how Mother Jones content is made available across the internet. I’m happy to report that working with Acquia’s help, we’re fulfilling the goals we set out to fulfill.”

About Acquia

Acquia is a commercial Open Source software company. We provide a valuable set of software and network services for the popular Drupal Open Source social publishing system. At Acquia, we maximize the potential of Drupal-powered solutions through our annual subscriptions for software and services. For more information about how Acquia can transform your community driven web investments, contact Acquia Sales at sales@acquia.com, 888-9-ACQUIA or +1-978-296-5250.

“Acquia is responsive and targeted in their troubleshooting. That’s doubly important with hidden or indirect problems. It’s as if Acquia support engineers have an instinctual ability to discover problems.”
Mother Jones

Company Information

Mother Jones
Journalism
Social Publishing
Challenges
  • Performance and site downtime
  • Poor visibility into architecture
  • Inability to address system problems
  • Fractured support and hosting model

Benefits

  • Finding a single source for hosting, support and administration
  • Discovering hidden and indirect site problems
  • Making systemic improvements to prevent future challenges
  • Taking a more proactive, strategic role in site management

What Drives Acquia

Acquia is driven to make sure that Open Source Drupal software works reliably, and that Drupal solutions are sensibly directed towards maximizing results.