This year's A-level results day may have seen a slight dip in the percentage of A and A* grades achieved by the hundreds of thousands of students who sat exams this summer. But one channel player ended the day having passed its test with flying colours.
Bath-based Microsoft partner IPL provided an infrastructure based on Microsoft's cloud-based Windows Azure technology to power the UCAS university admissions website. With the site handling up to 180 logins per second from anxious students and their family members, the need for a reliable and speedy service was paramount.
IPL and UCAS first started working together following 2011 results day when the admission service's website collapsed under the volume of traffic and crashed. IPL marketing chief Alan Hunt explained that the explosion in smartphone usage had caused problems for the site.
"Part of the reason the system fell down is the proliferation of mobile devices and smartphones," he said. "On results day there is a massive spike in traffic, and that was compounded by people's parents logging in from multiple devices at the same time."
IPL worked on building a Microsoft.NET Framework deployed through the Azure cloud around UCAS' existing on-premise Oracle database infrastructure.
Project manager Stephen Askew said: "The application is designed from the ground up to be fully scalable. That is what cloud computing gives us. We can deploy across multiple datacentres to protect against any outages."
Michael Newberry, Windows Azure lead at Microsoft UK, added: "The cloud and Windows Azure comes into its own when scale such as this is needed."
On results day 2012 IPL worked with UCAS to support its website up until 5pm. During the day it processed 900,000 logins. Almost a third of these were in the first hour of the day, while a quarter came from a mobile device.
This initial deployment featured a read-only track system, which handled more than 300 logins per second at its peak.
Following the success of IPL's initial engagement with UCAS, the Bath-based VAR has now rolled out a year-round, fully interactive portal for students and their families.
A good result?
Testing for the new system was extensive and intense, with trials run to ensure the 2013 version could cope even if all the previous year's users logged in during the same minute. Security tests to ensure unauthorised access was prohibited were also carried out by IPL, UCAS and a third party.
Askew said: "There are a lot of misconceptions about the security of the cloud. But we have a lot of experience in building secure applications, and all the data we store is encrypted to a high level."
The new UCAS service is hosted across two Azure datacentres in Amsterdam and Dublin. IPL states that "in the very unlikely event that one or other becomes unavailable, all the page requests will be diverted to the other instantly."
Each operates independently of the other and could handle the demands of results day in isolation, says IPL.
Using an Azure platform allows IPL to commit a huge amount of hardware resource to UCAS for a few days, the reseller claims. A total of 120 processors across 30 quad-core servers are set aside across the two datacentres, with the ability to call on another 80 processors instantly, if needed.
"On the day it is very much a case of monitoring the situation to spot any problems that might occur," added Askew.
But after two successful years working together and an expansion of IPL's responsibilities this time around, the reseller is confident that it has shown its value - and that of cloud computing - to the UK's biggest university admissions service.
"We were initially commissioned to do the results system only on the day last year, but we have proved our credibility from a risk-management point of view," said Askew. "IPL has the right system to continue to partner with UCAS."
Steve Jeffree, chief operating officer at UCAS, seems equally confident the new cloud system has what it takes to support the website through its busiest day of the year.
"UCAS' job is to provide a robust service for universities and colleges across the country, especially during this key time," he said. "The higher education sector will benefit from the move to cloud computing for many years to come."
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