UCAS adopts public cloud to process university admissions

Ten days before the A-level results, UCAS adopted a public cloud infrastructure to scale up its IT and to make admission process efficient

Ten days before the A-level results that were published this week, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) adopted a public cloud infrastructure to scale up its IT and to improve the efficiency of students’ university admission process.

UCAS matches students to universities. It processes over 2.5 million applications every year, for 650,000 prospective students across the UK and beyond, helping them gain access to more than 340 UK universities and colleges.

This makes UCAS, for one day in August, one of the most accessed websites in the UK.

So its IT team wanted a platform that could deliver speed, agility, and a high-scale IT infrastructure to process university admissions.

UCAS picked Amazon Web Services (AWS) public cloud in the run up to the results. While AWS was deployed to handle back-end infrastructure, it also used Microsoft Windows Azure for the front end.

The AWS public cloud service allowed UCAS to dramatically scale up its infrastructure, giving universities a robust technology platform from which to efficiently place 385,910 students into higher education as of A-level results day.

“We know the admissions process can be extremely stressful for students. Their futures depend on this move into higher education so we take our responsibility as the facilitator of this process very seriously,” said Steve Jeffree, chief operating officer at UCAS.

“It is for this reason that, in 2013, we chose to move the core of the UCAS confirmation and clearing process to the AWS cloud."

The flexibility and the unlimited capacity of AWS meant that UCAS could scale to meet the extreme demands of the admissions cycle.

“Both students and universities expect a high level of service with their admissions process. By investing in cloud technologies, we were able to give every student and university in the UK the fastest response times and top level of service they expect,” said Jeffree.

UCAS used AWS’s European cloud centre in Dublin and bought services such as Amazon EC2, Amazon S3, Amazon EBS, Elastic Load Balancing, Amazon Virtual Private Cloud, AWS CloudFormation, Amazon CloudWatch, Auto Scaling and Amazon ElastiCache.

The organisation also invested in a team of technology experts including cloud engineers, solutions architects and technical account managers as part of an enterprise support package from AWS.

Windows Azure for front-end IT during A-levels

UCAS had to handle 180 logins per second on 15 August when the A-level results were declared. This represented a huge challenge as the hopes and dreams of students rested on the reliability of IT that needed to scale to cope with a massive peak in activity, according to Microsoft’s TechNet blog.

To overcome this challenge, UCAS worked with Microsoft partner IPL for Windows Azure cloud to power the infrastructure that runs the university admissions system. The system provided UCAS with the ability to scale with the massive peak demand it experienced and is now helping students find university places via the UCAS clearing system.

“UCAS’ job is to provide a robust service for universities and colleges across the country, especially during this key time. The higher education sector will benefit from the move to cloud computing for many years to come,” Jeffree said.

The case for public cloud

If UCAS had not adopted public cloud, then supporting a massive influx of traffic for just one day a year would require investing in a large amount of technology hardware which would be unfeasible for a non-profit organisation.

Instead, the pay-as-you-go, flexible and scalable nature of AWS allows UCAS to scale up to meet the demand of students and universities, and only pay for the capacity used. This eliminates the need to have expensive technology hardware sitting around, lying idle until the same day next August.

Moving to the cloud comes as part of UCAS’s strategy to improve the UK student community’s admissions experience and ensure the fairness of the clearing system, according to its IT team.

The public cloud strategy also formed part of its strategic goal to modernise its organisational infrastructure and make the university admissions process as stress-free for students and as efficient for universities as possible.

“With the number of university entrants in the UK steadily growing we wanted to invest for the future to ensure UCAS has 21st century technology to deliver 21st century service to the students and universities of the UK,” Jeffree said.

“Cloud computing is clearly the future,” he added.

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