McGraw Hill operated a sophisticated custom-AMI build process to support both Linux and Windows-based AMIs. But this process was labor-intensive and difficult to scale. As the organization continued to grow, it needed to automate as much of the baseline build for AWS images as possible.Solutions Rackspace Elastic Engineering Platforms Cloud, Amazon Web Services (AWS)
McGraw Hill has been a leading education partner for millions of educators, students, and professionals around the world for more than 130 years. McGraw Hill has successfully evolved into a digital-first company that’s building technology solutions that deliver trusted, engaging content and analytics-driven products to support personalized learning across a digitally connected world.
“The solutions we provide as a company encompass a broad spectrum of learning moments,” said Ed Koegler, Vice President of Engineering at McGraw Hill. “Whether it's adaptive science to understand the specific learning path that a pupil is on, or differentiated instruction for an educator attempting to reach struggling learners where they are and enable us to move the classroom into the 21st century, a component of this is our partnership with Rackspace Technology. By reducing manual tasks, they’ve freed up our capacity to help drive learning outcomes and moments for differentiated learning experiences across multiple markets. We’re helping every learner reach their full potential.”
“It’s an absolute delight working with the Rackspace Elastic Engineering team. They are amazing technologists. I look forward to every interaction with this team because they don’t just take orders. They come to us with solutions and ideas.”
The obstacles they faced
Rackspace Technology® has worked with McGraw Hill for many years. Recently, the publisher engaged the Rackspace Elastic Engineering team to help transform its existing processes within its Amazon Web Services (AWS) environment. The company uses AWS cloud services to support its internal development processes.
McGraw Hill had created a sophisticated custom-AMI build process to support both Linux® and Windows®-based AMIs. Still, the process was too labor-intensive and difficult to scale. Each month, a small team had to perform the builds, which included multiple steps involving various third-party software.
McGraw Hill needed a customized base Amazon Machine Image (AMI) that includes all of the necessary security patches and software building blocks a developer needs to build a world-class application.
“We needed a standardized AMI build process that was highly scalable and fully automated, end-to-end,” said Chinmay Tripathi, Senior Director of Cloud Engineering and Site Reliability Engineering at McGraw Hill. “And this solution also needed to deliver high levels of reliability along with a great user experience.”
“By partnering with Rackspace Elastic Engineering, we get fresh ideas for how to automate resource-heavy manual processes. This group of technologists has helped us reduce our cycle time for production of a new secured image from six months to just weeks or days.”
How we helped
The sheer size of more than 190 AWS accounts required the company to bring in an expert partner like Rackspace Technology to help manage costs with its Rackspace Optimizer+ solution and to provide a dedicated team that could optimize McGraw Hill’s cloud architecture and infrastructure.
“Many challenges accompany the management of 190 accounts,” said Koegler. “McGraw Hill has thousands of EC2 images. We have a heterogeneous development environment with different types of solutions, including Windows, Linux and variations of Linux. We sought a secure way to encapsulate all of this through an automation pipeline — without having to manually build the baseline for our AWS images.”
While the existing process had served McGraw Hill well over the years, the Rackspace Elastic Engineering team sought an opportunity to create a cloud native solution that would address three goals:
- Increase automation and improve resiliency
- Broaden existing security and compliance measures
- Enable the reusability of build components
Because McGraw Hill’s legacy AMI process supported multiple core base AMIs, including CentOS, AWS, Linux and Windows, it experienced additional overhead costs stemming from complex governance processes that were required to generate alignment with different standards.
The current process lacked automation. Each step implemented various automated but separate mechanisms, such as building AMIs with CircleCI. McGraw Hill then used Jenkins for image distribution, which doesn’t easily integrate for a full end-to-end solution. Moving the build process to AWS’s EC2 Image Builder would allow for more seamless integration points with existing AWS services.
Rackspace Elastic Engineering started out by helping to manage many application-specific AMIs, but quickly realized there was a way to automate and standardize the build process. EC2 Image Builder’s component-based model offered a perfect opportunity to minimize duplication while supporting the development of an automated pipeline for all AMI builds.
The team determined that replacing core AMI build processes with EC2 Image Builder would provide and ideal platform on which to standardize the creation of custom AMIs for McGraw Hill.
The Rackspace Elastic Engineering solution features several key improvements, including:
- A decoupled architecture that supports asynchronous components and retry mechanisms
- Improved governance and security controls, including AMI encryption enforcement
- Automated security scanning integration that uses Okta to restrict approvals to only authorized individuals
- Added reusable components to support various architectures and versions of operating systems
- Automated Slack notifications with a custom Slack app that supports user interactions
For the Process Deep Dive, check out the technical case study here.
The Rackspace Elastic Engineering team also enlisted AWS services to boost compliance controls. The solution reduced the complexity of securing and managing multiple third-party components by keeping as much of the overall process on AWS as possible.
Building a new AMI pipeline used to be a process that took from two to six months. This cycle has been shortened to less than two weeks. This means that McGraw Hill’s developers can focus their time and efforts on growth priorities and creating applications that are reliable and secure for users.
“With Rackspace Technology, we were able to automate the EC2 images for each of the different platforms that we use for the various markets we serve, whether it’s PreK-12 education, higher education or professional development or continuing learner markets,” said Koegler. “Together, we were able to come up with an automated solution that secured the pipeline end-to-end, accelerated time to market and enabled development teams to focus on education problems for our learners and educators.”
AMI builds that have been significantly shorted from two to six months down to less than two weeks.
What we achieved together
Rackspace Technology has helped McGraw Hill transform and modernize its custom AMI build process by creating a cloud native solution that supports end-to-end automation, robust security controls and reusable components for supporting future expansion.
“At McGraw Hill, we’ve organized our reliability teams into six units that have effectively covered all the platforms we take to market,” said Koegler. “We treat the Rackspace Elastic Engineering team as an extension of one of those platform teams with their own backlog and autonomy. They listen to the problems we have and come to us with solutions, taking them all the way from ideation through implementation.”
Enabling McGraw Hill to focus on delivering world-class applications and educational services, instead of managing its custom AMI build process, is just one of the ways that the Rackspace Elastic Engineering team helps McGraw Hill succeed.
“We meet with the Rackspace Elastic Engineering a few times a week on Zoom for project updates and the status of individual projects,” said Tripathi. “And we also meet with them bi-weekly to discuss the overall program status, which could be about working on different areas and different programs”
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