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Jul 9 2014   7:59PM GMT

AWS experts help UK ed service beat one-day traffic spike

Maxine Giza Maxine Giza Profile: Maxine Giza

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AWS
Development

By: Jan Stafford

In the United Kingdom, applying for university and other higher education courses is quite different than in the U.S. In the U.S., students apply to individual institutions and get responses one by one over several weeks. In the U.K., all applications are approved online in a single day. Imagine the load placed on a web service that doles out all a nation’s higher-education admissions information in one day. That demand lead to the creation of a scalable, secure hybrid cloud solution on Amazon Web Services (AWS).

“Every over-18-year-old student in the UK who has applied to a university tries to get on the website on that day to see if they have their university place,” said Steve Millidge, director of C2B2, a Malvern, U.K.-based consulting firm. That’s about 650,000 students who’ve applied to hundreds of institutions. “The workload is incredibly thirsty,” he said.

Millidge’s C2B2 development team helped the major UK higher education software provider optimize a college admissions and application management service and move it to the cloud. Millidge has used AWS since its early days, first to test middleware products and then as a platform for quickly building up and tearing down environments. These days, he’s building and testing production environments in AWS for universities, government agencies and other businesses. Millidge is also a resident expert for SearchAWS.com.

The UK service provider used to run the admissions site on an on-premise system, and service delays and outages were a constant headache. Last year, the provider moved to a hybrid cloud approach, supporting the admission applications in its on-premise data center and in an AWS environment. No downtime, real-time analytics, high performance and scalability were the key desired results.

During this project, C2B2 helped the provider move its Oracle Fusion middleware into the AWS platform and build the technical architecture that would support this traffic peak. “We helped build out a replica of the in-house environment to manage specific events and integrate the data between the two environments,” said Millidge.

C2B2’s middleware expertise helped the provider avoid common, but incorrect, assumptions about the networks and the availability of shared storage, local services and servers that the service would run on, according to Millidge’s colleague, Nick Wright, C2B2 senior consultant. These were quite reasonable conventions for the time. Assuming everything is located in a single data center, these traditional systems can be used to create very effective architectures. Over time, however, the legacy components deployed and the interdependent configuration will not scale or be flexible enough for rapid changes common to cloud environments.

Moving away from brittle interdependent services takes a lot of courage on the service provider’s side, Wright said. “We were having to break the conventions that were being relied upon by legacy middleware components.”

C2B2 took a staged approach to solving the problem, identifying pathways that the applications used and analysing how to provide business functionality by isolating micro-services used in the workflow. “We then looked at various ways of bundling these services together so that each set of dependencies can be managed in isolation,” said Wright.

An important step was building high availability and automation into the services, so that they could be treated as a single surface that we could scale on demand. “This final part is where being in the cloud really helped,” said Wright. “We were able to leverage cloud automation tools as an API (application program interface) to translate our service needs into provisioned infrastructure.”

After deployment on a scalable, secure, AWS hybrid cloud last year, the provider ran the university admission process without downtime or operational incidents. All the while, the service provided real time feedback to end users on application performance. As a result, the provider confirmed the placement of 385,910 students into higher education on the A-level results day.

Jan Stafford plans and oversees strategy and operations for TechTarget’s Application Development Media Group. She has covered the computer industry for the last 20-plus years, writing about everything from personal computers to operating systems to server virtualization to application development. E-mail her at jstafford@techtarget.com.

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