Ad Server Migration aka “Replacing the Motor While Driving at 130 km/h”

Between 2011 and 2014, I replaced the outdated ad server for an internet company whose revenue relies strongly on ad delivery. We didn’t suffer any significant outages — and we didn’t lose a single person of my 12-person team.

The project further shortened the software deployment speed from about a month to around 4 hours and significantly reduced the maintenance effort for the tech department.

The Customer: United Internet AG / 1&1 Internet

United Internet AG is one of Europe’s biggest internet specialists. The German company provides both internet access (DSL, mobile internet, etc.) in Germany, as well as web hosting, servers, software and a range of other applications all over Europe and North America.

1&1 Internet is a hosting and e-business solution provider and one of United Internet’s main brands.

The Project: Migrating Ad Server Solutions

Running ads is one way for websites to monetise their content. To deliver those ads and optimise them for each person viewing the site you need an ad server.

Out with the old, unsupported ad server

In 2011, 1&1 Internet was running all their ad delivery on an out-of-date ad server. They had been using DoubleClick before it was bought by Google in 2008. But 1&1 Internet didn’t want to make the switch to Google’s ad server and the maintenance contract lapsed. They had no access to the source code to adapt it to a modern platform.

The tech department had kept the ball rolling for years. But, in 2011, it became clear that the solution wasn’t going to be able to keep up with the technical demands of the time much longer.

A completely new system

To be independent of maintenance contracts, 1&1 Internet decided to bring the new system completely in-house. They invested into a company that had developed their own ad server technology.

The Dangers & Difficulties: Outages are Expensive

Ad servers are complex. They need to be able to handle a lot of data and be able to keep up with the ever-changing internet landscape. When ad servers fail, ads aren’t delivered to users, and a lot of money goes down the drain.

When switching solutions, it’s important to make this go as smoothly as possible to avoid outages. This is a bit like switching the motor of a car while it’s hurtling down the motorway at 130 km/h.

Server migration is a high-stakes game

During the migration, which took almost 3 years, we faced a variety of challenges:

Software Without Documentation

The new ad server software was conceived as a service and never meant to be sold to third parties. By entering into a partnership with the company that owned the software, 1&1 Internet got access to the technology. But, at that point, no documentation existed for installing and running the software.

Figuring out how to flip the switch

We had to figure out the new ad server software by ourselves before we could even think of replacing the old system with it.

We had to work out…

And, ultimately, we had to figure out how to migrate from the old system to the new system without creating any outages.

The Solution: Writing Code and Talking to People

My 12-person team spent a lot of time building the new system, testing it, tackling challenges and writing code — all while keeping the old system running. The technical part was the main focus of the project.

But, as with every project that involves a lot of people in different departments in big companies, communication was indispensable as well.

We collaborated closely with our partners who had created the ad server software, and they helped us understand their software better.

Keeping everyone happy and on track

My work also included a lot of in-house conversations to figure out the pains of everyone directly and indirectly involved with the project. I talked to people from other departments to explain why the project was important and what they’d gain from the migration. I asked what they needed and we worked on providing solutions to the questions and challenges that preoccupied them.

The Outcome: A Smoother, Faster, Future-Proof System

On release day, we were gathered in our “war room” in front of two giant screens. The projector on the left side showed the old system, the projector on the right side the new system. Around 50 people from tech departments, management, and the board were staring at the screens when we finally flipped the switch.

Team spirit

Of course, it was a great feeling when the old system went dark and the new system successfully came to life. But I am most proud of my team during the whole project — that no one gave up but that we stuck together.

We worked towards our goal and towards every little milestone with relentless motivation. We celebrated our small successes, e.g. the internal test rollout which only took 3 hours instead of the 3 days it used to take.

Long-term risk reduction

The long-term effects of the migration are not to be scoffed at either:

The project in numbers