Business challenge

SiteSpirit’s clients were spending hours finding and editing photos to get the perfect images for their marketing materials. How could SiteSpirit help them move from concept to production faster?

Transformation

SiteSpirit’s developers harnessed IBM® cloud data services to build MediaSpirit, a cloud-based media-library-as-a-service that lets clients manage, find and use the right photos quickly and easily.

Results

Replaces

disorganized image folders with a clean, user-friendly online archive

10 times

faster image search capabilities, even when the system is under heavy load

90%

cost reduction with a serverless architecture that only runs when users need it

Business challenge story

Picture-perfect marketing

SiteSpirit is an industry leader in the development of specialist CRM systems, and has a particular focus on clients in two key industries: real estate and travel. Over the course of several projects, the SiteSpirit team noticed that sales and marketing professionals in both of these industries were suffering from a similar problem.

“OpenWhisk gives us an easy, cost-effective to handle peak demand and deliver a responsive user experience without worrying about how to scale.”

—Barry Nijenhuis, Co-Founder, SiteSpirit

Barry Nijenhuis, the co-founder of SiteSpirit, explains: “Whether you are trying to sell a house or a holiday, you need to show it to your customers in the best possible light. Good photography is absolutely vital because the first thing a customer wants to see is what the place looks like. So both real estate agents and travel agents typically have a huge collection of images that they need to store, categorize, and be able to retrieve and use quickly.

“However, very few of these companies have an adequate way of managing this process. Mostly, they have a folder somewhere on their network or a USB drive with thousands of images in it, and when they want to find something, they have to browse for it. Finding the right picture means knowing exactly what you’re looking for and where to find it; it can take several minutes even if you’re familiar with the filing system.

“Then you spend even more time resizing, cropping or converting the image into the right format. In particular, cropping photos is time-consuming unless you have proper image-manipulation software on your PC, especially if you want to focus on something that isn’t in the center of the image. All this effort distracts you from your real job: marketing and selling to customers.”

SiteSpirit decided to solve this problem by developing a simple, lightweight and fully featured cloud-based image library that it could deliver as a service—at first for its existing clients, and ultimately for any company that has a large internal collection of images that they need to manage.

Nijenhuis comments: “We knew we could provide tools for image storage, retrieval, editing and output that would turn a ten-minute task into a matter of a few mouse-clicks. For example, we have developed a feature called Focus Point that allows the user to click on any point in a photo, and it will create a range of cropped pictures that use that point as the center.

“The challenge was to bring these advanced features to our users in a convenient way by building a fast, easily searchable cloud image library service. It was also important to find a way to host the solution economically. It’s the kind of service that users might use very intensively for 30 minutes, and then not at all for the rest of the day—so we needed a minimal infrastructure that could scale quickly enough to support unpredictable peaks in demand.”

“Cloudant is amazingly quick at full-text searches, and OpenWhisk keeps the performance consistently fast, regardless of the number of users. We’re seeing sub-second response times even when the system is under heavy load.”

—Barry Nijenhuis, Co-Founder, SiteSpirit

Transformation story

Developing a better architecture

SiteSpirit’s initial prototype of its new media-library-as-a-service application—known as MediaSpirit (mediaspirit.io)—followed a relatively traditional architectural model. The app was built on top of open-source relational database and message queuing platforms, and ran on virtual servers hosted by a platform-as-a-service provider.

“The first version of MediaSpirit was a great step forward in terms of functionality, but it wasn’t as scalable, performant or cost-effective as we wanted it to be,” says Nijenhuis. “We had to pay for a relatively large virtual server to support peak workloads, but most of the time, we weren’t actually utilizing much of that capacity. When we did have multiple users on the system, the speed of searches with our relational database was quite slow—we were doing too many joins, and the queries could take ten seconds or more to complete.”

The SiteSpirit team decided to rethink the architecture completely, and rebuild it using new serverless technologies.

“We were intrigued by the serverless concept—the idea that your application doesn’t actually run at all until someone wants to use it,” explains Nijenhuis. “When IBM announced that Apache OpenWhisk serverless computing was going to be launched on IBM® Bluemix®, we dived straight in. We started using OpenWhisk when it was still in beta, and we immediately became huge fans.”

SiteSpirit has split its application up into a number of independent services—or in OpenWhisk terms, “actions”—that can be executed separately. When a user visits the MediaSpirit website, it triggers OpenWhisk to immediately allocate server resources and execute the relevant actions—for example, uploading, tagging, searching, cropping, resizing or downloading an image. When the execution has finished, OpenWhisk releases the resources that the action was using—so no code is running, no server is idling, and no costs are incurred unless users are online.

Equally, if a large number of users log on at the same time, OpenWhisk can simply scale up the server resources allocated to each action, and share the workload. The scalability is seamless, and ensures that all users enjoy a smooth, responsive online experience, regardless of how busy the site is.

“OpenWhisk gives us an easy, cost-effective way to handle peak demand and deliver a responsive user experience without worrying about how to scale,” says Nijenhuis.

SiteSpirit also redesigned the data layer by moving from a rigid, tabular relational model to a flat, schemaless JSON structure. It now uses IBM Cloudant® to store and manage all of MediaSpirit’s image tags and metadata, while the images themselves live in an object storage repository.

“The number-one feature that users want from an image library is a fast search capability,” says Nijenhuis. “Using a NoSQL database to flatten the data structure and eliminate joins gives a big performance boost to start with, and Cloudant’s full-text search is exceptionally good.”

He adds: “We also really appreciate Cloudant’s database-as-a-service approach. As a small development team, it’s important for us to be able to stand on the shoulders of giants—so when IBM can provide a fully managed database, it’s a great benefit. It frees us up to focus on what we’re good at, developing new application logic and better functionality for our users.”

SiteSpirit also appreciates the easy replication that Cloudant provides. Whenever the team needs to onboard a new client and set up a new image repository in MediaSpirit, they can simply replicate their master database template and start populating it with the client’s data within minutes.

Over the course of the development of the new version of MediaSpirit, SiteSpirit’s developers have remained in close contact with IBM OpenWhisk and Cloudant support teams.

Nijenhuis comments: “We’re doing a presentation soon at an IBM conference, and the title is ‘A Love Story’. That’s how we feel about our relationship. We used to see IBM as a big company that was hard to reach. Now it’s really easy to work with them: there’s a great community, and they’re helping us flourish with the apps we want to build.”

Results story

Putting performance in focus

With the new architecture in place, MediaSpirit’s users can find the perfect image for their campaigns and collateral in seconds—and use unique functionalities such as Focus Point to crop, resize and output media in exactly the right size, shape and format for each deliverable that they want to create.

Nijenhuis comments: “Even our earliest prototype made it much faster to find, edit and download images, compared to browsing through folders on a file server. But the latest version has completely changed the game. Cloudant is amazingly quick at full-text searches, and OpenWhisk keeps the performance consistently fast, regardless of the number of users. Searches run at least ten times faster, so we’re seeing sub-second response times even when the system is under heavy load.”

Equally important, the new version of MediaSpirit can scale cost-effectively to meet the demands of many concurrent users, without incurring large overheads when the service is not active. By spinning up new containers when—and only when—user demand increases, the serverless architecture keeps costs to a minimum.

“In the past, we sometimes had months when our hosting fees were eight times higher than they are today,” recalls Nijenhuis. “Looking at the average monthly fees, OpenWhisk has reduced our hosting costs by 90 percent.”

As a result, SiteSpirit is now ready to roll out MediaSpirit to a wider group of users without worrying about either costs or performance. The service is currently in private beta with the company’s current customers, but it will soon will be launched as a more public service.

Nijenhuis concludes: “We’re sure that many other companies will see MediaSpirit as an attractive prospect. Access to a fast, lightweight, cost-effective cloud image library could benefit companies in any industry that need to manage large numbers of photos, not just real estate and travel agents. And with IBM on our side, we’re very confident that we can deliver on our promises.”

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About SiteSpirit

SiteSpirit is a boutique software consultancy that specializes in developing back-office systems and responsive websites for industries such as real estate and travel and tourism. Its TeleSpirit, RealSpirit and TravelSpirit CRM solutions are complemented by its PageSpirit web hosting and content management tool—and now also by MediaSpirit, an innovative cloud-based media-library-as-a-service offering.

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