With more than £62.5m worth of charitable donations at stake, to say that running the technology behind Sport Relief's donation platform is a big task would be something of an understatement.
But that is not all that vendor HP and VAR Carrenza had to do during the six-week build up to 2012's Sport Relief and, crucially, on the big night's live telethon. The pair, which worked among a team of 17 technology partners, was also responsible for Sport Relief's website, along with sign-up and support platforms.
Sport Relief, a biennial event organised by Comic Relief which raises money for people living difficult lives both in the UK and abroad, has been running since 2002.
The event attracts support from people running the Sport Relief Mile across the country, as well as scoring celebrity involvement. Comedians David Walliams and John Bishop showed their support in 2010 and 2012 respectively, with Walliams swimming the English Channel and Bishop completing his "week from hell" by cycling, rowing and running from Paris to London.
A taste of the real thing
But while both the public and celebrities are out completing gruelling physical activities, behind the scenes, technology partners are hard at work as well, laying the foundations for the technical operation.
Carrenza and HP provide about £500,000 worth of services to Sport Relief for free, and have done since 2008. Dan Sutherland, Carrenza's chief executive, believes that working with the organisation is beneficial from both a charitable and technological perspective.
He said: "Comic Relief is a great organisation to work with in terms of the good work it does, and it is a great technical challenge for us too; it is fascinating.
"For example, it is very useful in terms of load testing. During the telethon, if the presenter on screen tells the audience to phone in or go online to donate, about 20 per cent of them do as they are told, which means a massive amount of people using our platforms at once.
"The sheer volume of people using the services helped us to load test our platforms. We can see what it does under huge pressure and that is very useful for us.
"The event is randomised and we have no clue what is going to happen, or when. Load testing is never truly effective so getting a taste of the real thing during Sport Relief is great."
The peak time for platform traffic came during Comic Relief in 2011 when more than 250 transactions per second were registered, and more than 700,000 were recorded throughout the whole event, while this year's telethon audience achieved 7.2 million viewers at its height.
While peak audience times are great for raising cash, they are the most stressful for the technology team, as Sutherland explained.
"At the busiest time in 2011, it was a big challenge for us. Former Doctor Who, David Tennant, was on screen in a hospital in Kenya where small children were dying and it was very harrowing.
"He could not do a piece to camera as he was fighting back tears. However, back in the office, you had the cynical IT guys watching and thinking: "Oh God, here we go!" because it creates a flood of responses, which really tests our technology."
HP and Carrenza have worked together on Sport Relief for about six years, and the VAR's core cloud platforms operate with HP ProLiant BL460 blade servers which provide the processing power.
The team of technology partners, comprising both large and small companies, works out the logistics for the applications about five months before the Sport Relief launch.
Servers are built between six and eight weeks before the start of the campaign, and the platforms are ready to be scaled to maximum functionality about one week before it all kicks off.
However, the careful planning and long timescale still do not iron out all the problems associated with running such a big operation.
Sutherland said: "We have not had any completely devastating problems during the events, but there are always potential issues.
"One time, we got close to running out of available processing power, but it turned out OK. We can learn from those sorts of things and change next time."
In spite of the unforeseen issues surrounding the technology during the build-up and on the night, HP and Carrenza's familiarity with the event and each other's technology means issues were quickly resolved.
"As a result of the blades providing the processing power, we have huge reliability; if
the power goes off, the server is unaffected," said Sutherland.
"If a power cut happened, it would just be pointed at another server; it is simple from that point of view. The magic of running a cloud platform is that you are able to gain an understanding of what your limitations are.
"We have been working together since 2006, so we now have six years of data to help us deliver. This shows us how to scale the platform and it is that knowledge that glues it all together," continued Sutherland.
Just one shot
Although the technology partners have had experience of working together, the rapid speed of technological development means that no two events are the same to operate.
Sutherland added: "It is a brand-new challenge every time and there is just no template from which to work. Even once one event is over, next year's is always different; technology has moved on and apps have been rewritten.
"Even though this is a challenge, we have never had any problems that have prevented Comic Relief from taking any money.
"When you release other platforms, you get a chance to tweak them and re-release it. But with Comic Relief we have just one shot and only seven hours to constantly deliver. There is no chance for Sport Relief version 1.1."
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