Poetry Foundation

Web Platform
Computer on stylish desk with bonsai tree and modern lamp.

The Challenge

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.1

The Poetry Foundation is the web's foremost resource for digital poetry, acting as an archive of content spanning centuries, languages, and geographies. Because of their extensive library of poetry content, the Foundation’s web assets see millions of monthly visits, largely from organic search traffic for specific poems or poets.

However, the organization's massive search interest actually posed one of its biggest challenges. Their platform was built on a legacy Symfony app that was significantly outdated and suffered from defects and security vulnerabilities. To make matters more challenging, the Poetry Foundation's web infrastructure had trouble with scaling up to meet the demand during high-traffic times, causing outages and failures.

In addition, the search platform that the Poetry Foundation used to power its own internal site search was a deprecated platform called Sphinx, which was not only slow to respond and return results, but also occasionally returned unexpected or inaccurate results. With a library of tens of thousands of poems, articles, podcasts, and videos, a functional search experience wasn't optional for the Poetry Foundation's users.

With a library of tens of thousands of poems, articles, podcasts, and videos, a functional search experience wasn't optional for the Poetry Foundation's users.

These issues all came to a head when a significant outage took the site down on Valentine's Day 2019—an occasion akin to the Super Bowl for poetry content online. The technology leadership at the Poetry Foundation knew they needed a web platform that offered stability, with technologies and an architecture that could scale up to meet the demands of their growing audience. The Poetry Foundation approached Wolfco looking for a solution that would give them just that.

Close up of woman writing in a notebook.

The Solution

Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.2

First and foremost, Wolfco began work stabilizing the existing platform, performing updates to the Symfony PHP framework and correcting lingering defects. Over the course of three months, the Wolfco team was able to deploy major new features and improvements to the systems architecture that aimed to ensure the Poetry Foundation had scale and performance to spare.

Alongside a similar refresh of the front-end experience developed by a partner agency and powered by the Craft CMS, Wolfco focused its attention on the centralized backend that supported not only the Craft CMS website, but also the Poetry Out Loud WordPress site, a branded mobile app, and a handful of other sites. Called the PCMS (for Poetry CMS), this system makes an enormous content library of poems, articles, podcasts, and videos readily available to the full ecosystem of user-facing products.

Wolfco also integrated a new platform called Simplecast with the PCMS to host the organization's audio content and podcasts, improving performance and reliability across the channels. The team designed custom integrations to allow the Poetry Foundation team to continue using existing workflows in the PCMS while automating the process and optimizing for capability with Simplecast.

One of the most transformative improvements was migrating the site's internal search engine from the legacy Sphinx platform to Algolia. Wolfco worked to ensure that all of the Poetry Foundation's existing content was indexed correctly with Algolia, and assisted with ranking logic, keywords, and providing synonyms for common search terms as part of a major strategy engagement to optimize search. The end goal was to ensure that searching for any line of poetry would immediately return the correct result.

When searching for the first stanza of a poem, the platform needs to return the correct result instantly.

Finally, Wolfco consulted on infrastructure improvements to boost scalability, setting up Docker containers and a complex Kubernetes orchestration system to meet even the highest demand. Along with the Poetry Foundation's existing hosting partner, Wolfco helped introduce an infrastructure that was built for all the Valentine's Days to come.

Close up of hand holding a phone.

The Outcome

I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.3

By switching to the more performant and efficient Algolia for the search platform, the Poetry Foundation was able to deliver a more responsive, accurate search experience. In addition, they've received positive feedback from users about the speed and quality of the results, with a more intuitive user experience that returns predictive results as users type in their search entry.

Unlike their previous platform, the work Wolfco delivered allows the Poetry Foundation to deploy several times per day with no downtime, thanks to the infrastructure improvements and continuous integration. Looking ahead to their roadmap of enhancements and new capabilities, the Poetry Foundation has the architecture and technologies it needs to support its next verse. 

After working with Wolfco, we've never felt more confident in our platform. Not only do we have a better experience across the board that's faster and more responsive, but we also have a reliable, dedicated partner behind us who can help us tackle the next obstacle.

— Former CTO & Director of Digital Programs


1. From "The Second Coming", by William Butler Yeats.

2. From "Still I Rise", by Maya Angelou.

3. From "The Road not Taken", by Robert Frost.

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