Use Case: Delivering Digital Teaching Materials Quickly and Securely

We've been talking a lot about features lately.  Now, how to use some of them in real life.

Say you're a publisher of textbooks or other teaching materials.  You're good at selling to schools, but you need an efficient and secure way to get digital products into the hands of students after the sale.  Tizra gives you a number of ways to get this done (in addition to built-in ecommerce for self-serve credit card sales), but today we'll focus on a new option built around the batch account loader, which makes it as simple as copy and paste.  Note that second and third steps below only need to be done the first time you set up…

1. Add and Tag Users
Use the new batch account loader to load and tag email addresses for the students who should have access (if you don't have emails, there are other options we'll cover in future posts).  Pick a tag that's short and easy to remember.  For example, if you want to arrange access to a book called Knowledge 101 during the upcoming fall term, you could use a tag like "kno101-fa2011."  (Once you create the tag, you'll be able to select it from a picker so it's easy to standardize.)

2. Create an Account Set
Account Sets let you create groups of users based on their tags.  To create one for the users just tagged, go to USERS > Account Sets in the control panel, then click "Create New…"  You'll get a screen like the one below, into which you can enter a name for the set, like "Knowledge 101, Fall 2011."  Then you can define who should be included by using the tag picker to add the "kno101-fa2011" tag in the appropriate filtering field (presumably "Matching All" in this case).  Click "Save" and you'll see the filtered list of users at the bottom of the screen.

Filtering users into an account set.
3. Add a License
By adding one of Tizra's highly flexible content Licenses to the Account Set, you can control what content its members will have access to, and for how long.  Click "Create New…" under the Set Licenses heading, and you'll get a dialog that lets you select from any content Collection or Offer on the site.  Once the License is created, you can just click on it to get the editing dialog shown below, which lets you adjust options including Duration of access (which will automatically begin counting down when the user first views the content), number of Concurrent Sessions (so you can sell group licenses and restrict unauthorized sharing of logins) and whether or not users have access to downloadable versions of the book or supplemental materials.  Once the license is added, members of the set will automatically have appropriate access.

Setting license terms for members of the set.
4. Repeat…skipping steps 2 & 3
Once you've got things set up as above, all you need to do to authorize new users is load and tag them as in Step 1.

More Eggs in More Baskets: How the AWS Outage Made Us Stronger

Like a lot of web companies, we learned some hard lessons from the Amazon Web Services outage of a few weeks ago.   We didn't lose a single byte of data, but we resolved never again to put one service provider—no matter how large and diversified—in a position where its failure could cause a serious interruption in service for our customers.

As promised, we 've now finished setting up automated data backup and redundant server infrastructure in facilities maintained by a completely separate company: Softlayer Technologies.  Like AWS, Softlayer maintains the high security and reliability standards we require, including SAS 70 Type II Certification and PCI DSS Compliance.  And their Texas location adds geographic diversity to the Virginia and California regions Amazon gives us access to.

This is in no way the end of our efforts to improve reliability and security.  We'll keep refining backup, failover and recovery processes to ensure not only that our customers' data is safe but that it remains available to a rapidly growing user base.  Still, we wanted to mark this milestone as a way of making clear that the lesson was not only learned but acted on.

Time to Fire the Sysadmin? What We're Doing About the AWS Outage


The downtime brought about by the massive failure at Amazon Web Services has now agonizingly stretched well into a second day, causing us to question practically everything we thought we knew about hosting web applications.

Lurking behind it all is the nagging anxiety that maybe we should go back to a simpler time, when men were men, and ran their own machine rooms.  Then come the flashbacks, and we remember what that was really like.  All it took was a careless backhoe operator…

The truth is that for all the pain and, yes, embarrassment, the answer is not to turn back the clock.  The answer is, as it almost always is in these situations, to use this experience to build something better.  Something that leverages the best of the new tools, with a deeper understanding of their risks.

Another way to put it: Don't fire the sysadmin while he's trying to fix the servers.  Keep cool and get the crisis resolved, then do a full post-mortem to squeeze every drop of learning you can from the experience.

In that spirit, we wanted to share our plans for preventing and recovering from future outages.  The truth is these have been in progress for a while, but you can bet they'll now be exposed to a whole new level of scrutiny and outrank all other priorities until they're complete.

Bad Case Scenario

For starters, we will of course continue to follow the recommended Amazon Web Services practice by maintaining backups that replicate our data and software across multiple Availability Zones.  Availability Zones are, according to AWS documentation, designed so they do not share common points of failure, such as generators and cooling equipment.  In addition, they are physically separate, so "even extremely uncommon disasters such as fires, tornados or flooding would only affect a single Availability Zone."

Moving data across availability zones is fast, and is supported by powerful AWS snapshotting capabilities, so it's possible to make very frequent backups, and to recover quickly.

In the Bad Case Scenario where an Availability Zone fails, we'll be able to spool up new application and database servers in a separate Availability Zone, recover files from a recent backup snapshot stored in Amazon's highly stable S3 infrastructure, connect to an already-running live database backup, and be back online in less than a half an hour.  We'll use the AWS Elastic IP feature to eliminate DNS propagation issues which can sometimes delay restoration of access for some users.

But as we've seen, redundancy across Zones is not always enough.  While AWS maintains this is extraordinarily unlikely, the recent outage took out multiple Zones, which brings us to the next scenario.

Worse Case Scenario (like the current one)

In addition to maintaining redundancy across Availability Zones, we will also do so across Regions.  AWS maintains five Regions (each containing multiple Availability Zones) around the world.  There's one on the East Coast and another on the West Coast of the US.  To protect against the failure of an entire Region, we will maintain a live database backup on the opposite coast, and a complete file backup updated at least nightly (unfortunately, AWS snapshots cannot currently be made across Regions).

If all the Availability Zones on one coast go down, we'll start up pre-configured application and database servers on the other one, connect up to the live database backup, and restore from the nightly file backup.  It will take somewhat longer, since snapshots and the Elastic IP feature will not be available.  Also, content added since the last backup will not be available until the other Region is restored.  (Even in the current case, it does not appear data has been permanently lost).

Even so, we should be able to get back online within an hour.

Worst Case Scenario

So what if something happens to AWS as a whole, or at least they somehow lose both coasts?  For that case, we'll maintain what's called a company-diverse backup plan.  That is, we'll maintain server infrastructure with another provider completely separate from Amazon.  We'll keep nightly database dumps and file backups on servers there.  If the AWS data is truly gone from both coasts with no warning, there's the potential that up to a day's data could be lost, and there would be some delays in restoring service, since we're dealing with real, rather than virtual hardware, and real IP address changes, but it should still be possible to be online within a day.

Then we just have to worry about the guy with the backhoe.



Feature Frenzy #3: Quickly Loading & Tagging User Accounts with the Batch Loader

Continuing the Feature Frenzy series, today we'll introduce the new account batch loader, which provides a simple way to create and tag user accounts on Tizra hosted sites.  Who cares?  Anyone who wants to do things like...
  • Sell content via email promotions — The loader lets you quickly add members of your mailing list, and give them access to special deals, free samples, etc.
  • Deliver content in bulk to schools, companies, etc. — Use the loader to fulfill large numbers of orders quickly when selling through an existing sales team or other offline method.
  • Manage "members only" access — The loader provides a quick, simple alternative to single sign-on integration, helping associations and other groups keep member lists up-to-date.
We'll detail some sample applications in upcoming posts, but first, the basics: To use the batch loader, just go to the "USERS" area in the Tizra Control Panel, then click the "Upload" button down at the bottom of the page.  A dialog like the one at left pops up.  Paste in a list of usernames, enter any tags you want applied to them, and submit.  Your users are created and tagged.

You can then use the tags to create groupings called Account Sets, and provide appropriate access to all members of each set using Licenses.  The Licenses are extremely flexible, enabling you to provide access for a certain amount of time from first access, between fixed dates (such as a semester), up to a certain number of simultaneous sessions (or seats), and letting you control whether supplemental downloads like spreadsheets, slides or video are included. 

To ease management and improve security, users created via the loader are flagged with the special status "Email Verification Required."  This means that the first time the user tries to log in, they'll be prompted for a password, and will receive an account activation link via email.  This process verifies that they are who they say they are, and from then on, the users can update their own username, password and other information, without contacting support.

A simple feature, but one that opens up all kinds of possibilities.  More on those soon!

Feature Frenzy #2: Giving It Away (Strategically) with Sampling Licenses

Continuing the Sisyphean task of trying to blog as fast as Tizra is upgraded, today's Feature Frenzy covers the new Sampling License, which as the name suggests, makes it much easier to give away precisely those chunks of content that advance your marketing mission...while keeping the rest behind the paywall or otherwise off limits.

The sampling license is ideal for promotional strategies like...

  • Using one content format to promote another — Say you want users to have free access to a web-only version of your content, but to charge them for the convenience of a version they can download, print, or load into their iPad or other ereader.  Or maybe you want to charge for video, or other multimedia extras.
  • Metered paywall — Gives users free rein to sample whatever parts of your content interest them, but limits the total number of pages they can view.  With the Sampling License, you can achieve an effect similar to what publications like the The New York Times are planning (presumably on much more expensive software than Tizra!). 
  • Pages 1-X free — Similar to the way the Transportation Research Board is giving away the first two pages of each of the thousands of technical papers they're distributing on Tizra, since those just contain summary information that helps promote the content.

Sampling License controls let users specify page ranges, date ranges, content formats and number or page views to be included in the sample.
To set up a sampling license, just go to the collection you want to manage in the Tizra control panel.  Click "Create Sampling License" and the dialog above pops up.  You can then specify a date range and content formats you want it to apply to.  If you want to restrict to a certain page range, or number of page views, check the "Page Sampling" box and follow the directions.

Then click "create" and you're done.  The terms are immediately applied to all the content within the collection.  Much faster than managing your samples one document or document excerpt at a time!

Other Sampling Strategies: Lead Generation
Generating leads with free content downloads.
Of course there are other reasons to give content away, some of which are best supported by pre-existing Tizra features.  A common one is using content giveaways such as white papers, analyst reports, etc., as an incentive for users who may be interested in your products to submit contact information.

Setting an Offer to Free.
You can support this by creating an Offer as you normally would when selling content, but instead of entering a price, selecting the "Free" option.  Users will automatically be presented with appropriate registration screens and claim buttons like the one above.  You can add whatever fields you want to the registration form by going to USERS > Individual Accounts, then picking an account and clicking "New Property."

Free Excerpts
In many cases, letting prospective buyers leaf through selected parts of a document, like the introduction or foreword, is the best way to help them decide if they want to buy.  That's why MIT Press gives away the front matter of books like Bandwagon Effects in High Technology Industries on their Tizra-hosted CISnet site.


Excerpt controls let Tizra customers like MIT Press give away specific sections of books (or sell them). 
With our standard Excerpt features, you can specify exactly which pages should be in the samples, and they'll automatically be labeled "FREE"  on the table of contents without your having to muck around with web design.

Creating an Excerpt from a ToC entry.
To configure free Excerpts, just go to the Properties page for the Document you want to offer samples on, then click the Table of Contents tab.  Click "Create Excerpt" on the ToC items as shown above.  When you've got all the Excerpts you want, click each and select "yes" next to "Make this Excerpt Free?"  Then publish the Excerpt and it'll be open to the world!

Sites that Speak Volumes: Recent Launches by Consumer Reports, TRB, Davis & Columbia

Already, it's clear 2011 is going to be different.  Holiday shoppers gorged on ereaders, iPads and smart phones.  And after years of talk, digital content sales are actually skyrocketing the way the pundits said they would.

We're seeing the results in a whole new level of action and ambition from our customers.  They're pushing beyond ebooks to create digital destinations that combine anything from conference video to consumer editorial to classroom PowerPoint slides.

As you'll see below, the sites speak for  themselves.  Our customers are building their brands and achieving their goals, while teaching us new things every day!

Consumer Reports

Consumer Reports Health was looking for a way to market a series of downloadable reports providing in-depth, unbiased information.  Working with Tizra, they succeeded in launching a custom-tailored e-commerce portal within weeks.  Tizra provided design and production services, so Consumer Reports could meet tight deadlines without distracting internal resources, then provided training so they could take site management in house.

Transportation Research Board
Our friends at Omnipress are among the best when it comes to configuring Tizra to the needs of large professional gatherings.  Nonetheless, the TRB Annual Meeting Online site was a tall order, with more than 5,700 session videos, technical papers and presentations to be shared among more than 10,000 participants.  Omnipress rose to the challenge, delivering a site that showed off their web design capabilities, and leveraged Tizra's search, access control and ecommerce to the hilt.

Davis Publications
As the only educational publisher in the world solely dedicated to visual art, you can bet Davis Publications didn't want to compromise on the look of its new ebook site.  They didn't want to compromise on schedule either.  Tizra's crack design and production squad delivered the site exactly on time, just three weeks after kickoff.  And that includes time for two rounds of very discerning design review!

Columbia University Press
http://cupola.columbia.edu
Columbia University Press was looking to establish a new digital brand, selling direct to readers.  And they wanted to test chapter-at-a-time sales, along with ereader-ready downloads and a variety of subscription terms.  And they wanted to take advantage of their own in-house design resources.  The Tizra platform let them have it all.  Their staff created a beautiful look using our powerful tools, and now they have CUPOLA (Columbia University Press Online Access).  All the flexibility and power of custom software, without the giant development costs!

Customer Coolness: Selling Ebooks by the Chapter, Download & Web Subscription All at Once

Sometimes a customer uses our software so well all we can do is gape and point.  (Actually, it's been happening quite a lot lately.)  Example: The way Columbia University Press has neatly exploited Tizra features to turn simple PDF files into a whole range of ebook products, including...
  • Web-only subscriptions of various durations.
  • Full book download/web combos.
  • Single chapter download/web combos.
A reader who just wants to answer quick questions about, say, how the concept of Strategic Innovation applies to Bill Gates, could just buy a chapter and browse it immediately online.  Someone with a deep interest in the topic could buy the right to download the whole book, load it into their ereader and take it with them on the road.

Tizra's supported these kinds of options—and a lot of others—for some time, but it takes design and copywriting flare to present them in ways users can quickly make sense of.  We think the paywall page below does it really nicely.
Typical CUPOLA paywall page automatically displays all relevant purchase options.
Tizra's dynamic offer management enables CUP to automatically put just the right promotions in the right places.  For example, if you want to read Flash Versus Blink: An Introduction to Strategic Intuition, which they offer as a free sample, you'll go straight through to the the content, and can either view it online or download the whole chapter.   But if you want read "Warrior Buddha: The Path to Beginner’s Mind," you'll hit a paywall page like the above.

Even better, CUP can now quickly test variations on pricing, terms, copy and design to optimize results.

It's still early in the project, but it looks to me like CUP's been reading some of their own books!

Feature Frenzy #1: The Cure for Post-Publication Panic

Tizra isn't the same software it was a year ago. Or even a month ago. In this series, we'll outline a few recent upgrades that are making our software more useful and valuable all the time. Upcoming posts:
Today: Quick fixes and updates with new publishing options.
Ever have post-publication panic…that sudden chill when you catch an error right after clicking "Publish to Live"? Fixing these slips has always been pretty easy with Tizra, but now it's quicker and your users need never know it happened…even if you goofed on a LARGE scale.

Say, for example, you misspelled the name of your Very Important Author on her latest, thought-leading report. As always, you can just type in your changes and click "Publish," but maybe you don't want to wait the extra seconds it'll take to reprocess the whole PDF file. Just click the "Publish metadata only" checkbox and your update will be live in a second or two.

As long as you don't need to update the underlying PDF, the feature works for changes to any metadata field…tags, keywords, abstracts or any custom field you've added. And if you want to apply it to many documents at once, you can use it in batch operations from the main documents list…in which case those seconds can really add up!

Now, what if your homepage features a listing of latest updates? Normally, it's handy that Tizra automatically adds new reports whenever you publish them, with the newest at the top. But if all that's new about what you're publishing is that the name isn't misspelled anymore, maybe you don't want it bumped back up the list. Just click the "Don't update publication date" box before you click "Publish" and the fix goes in quietly.

Especially nice for RSS subscribers, who won't be bothered with alerts for a "new" publication that's really just a minor tweak!