The organisation processes 450,000 student applications a year, of which about 40% use Apply, a web-based system that went live last year. Ucas said it expects this figure to rise sharply in the coming years, after seeing a 25% increase in online applications in the past 12 months.
Although the increased number of online applications has boosted efficiency by, for example, cutting paper directories by 75%, the level of demand places extra pressure on Ucas' IT systems, particularly as there are many peaks in demand through the year, said Steve Harrop, director of technology at Ucas.
"The website is such a critical part of the application process that it cannot go down for any time at all," he said. "This is particularly true for peak times, such as clearing [where students who have not got the grades they required search for spare places on other courses]. Courses go up at midnight and, for that first hour, demand on the site goes ballistic."
To ensure 100% availability, Ucas recently rolled out a host of intelligent application switches from supplier Radware, which allow the IT team to mitigate risks by using multiple ISPs and sharing resources across separate server farms.