Red Nose Day 2015: How Comic Relief used cloud to bank a record £78m

Comic Relief CTO Zenon Hannick explains how the charity used cloud to process a record number of donations during Red Nose Day 2015

Red Nose Day 2015 raised a record breaking £78m for Comic Relief, bringing the total amount made by the charity since its inception 30 years ago to more than £1bn.

In recent years, cloud has played an increasingly important role in supporting the charity’s websites, payment systems and data capture services, with many of the providers offering access to their technologies and staff for free.

“If 10 years ago I was working here and was to think of something that fits the profile of what we're trying to do, then cloud would be it,” says Comic Relief CTO Zenon Hannick.

“It has been built specifically for events like this, as we can build everything to a certain scale and then plan to switch and scale out in line with the demand we see on the night.”

Cloud contributors

Among the roll call of cloud providers the charity uses are Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Carrenza, while it also draws on the open source Cloud Foundry platform-as-a-service (PaaS) offering to underpin its payment systems.

The AWS cloud is used to ensure the Comic Relief and Red Nose Day websites are able to stand up to the rise in web traffic they receive in the run up to the event, which this year occurred on Friday 13 March.

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Along with the infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) capabilities of Carrenza, the AWS cloud is also used to support the work of one of the charity’s three all-important donation platforms.

This specific payment platform was created in-house by Comic Relief with the help of Cloud Foundry application deployment specialist Armakuni, says Hannick.

“That platform is built to be completely distributed and to have multiple points of redundancy. On the night we host two instances in AWS and one in Carrenza," he says.

Furthermore, hardware giant HP provides the charity with free equipment, which is used to kit out the Carrenza datacentre and support its contribution.

On the evening of Red Nose Day, it has been known for donations to come in at a rate of 250 per second, so the organisation also relies on several other payment providers to ensure it can cope with the demand.

It also leans on Carrenza to host a PayPal platform, through which donations are processed, along with Stripe, which joined the cause this year, and long-standing payment provider partner WorldPay. This all helps add another layer of redundancy to the set-up, says Hannick.

Security testing

Ensuring this set-up is equipped to cope with a large number of user requests is one thing, but it is also rigorously tested by representatives from security consultancy firm the NCC Group.

As an organisation, we’re fully committed to the cloud and definitely will be looking at where the industry is going

Zenon Hannick, Comic Relief

“They use their consultants’ time when they’re not working on other contracts to try and break into all of our systems, and when our systems are under their beady eye, I know that they’re as secure as we can possibly make them,” Hannick says.

It may come as a surprise to some, but its platforms pose a lucrative target for hackers, given the vast sums of money they handle, as well as the personal details of those kind enough to donate to the cause.

The charity usually sees the biggest surge in donations on the night of Red Nose Day, but there have also been other peaks in demand it has had to deal with in the run up to the event.

These have been prompted by the broadcast of Comic Relief-themed episodes of popular BBC shows, such as The Great British Bake Off, Strictly Come Dancing and Operation Health, which charted the work that went into overhauling a rural health centre in Uganda.

“We prepare for those events, but the night itself is on a completely different scale,” says Hannick. “We see a 20 to 25-fold increase in traffic, but the donations go through the roof.”

Looking ahead

While the likes of Carrenza have been offering up their services to the cause since around 2008, Hannick says Comic Relief has been a “massive user” of cloud technologies since 2014, having seriously started experimenting with it in 2012.

To be slightly behind the envelope is a good place to be so we can pick up on the innovative stuff that is proven to be able to deal with the unique event we have

Zenon Hannick, Comic Relief

With the charity operating an 18-month IT development cycle for its events, work has already begun on the next big date in Comic Relief’s calendar, which is Sport Relief 2016, and cloud is likely to feature extensively once more.

“As an organisation, we’re fully committed to the cloud and definitely will be looking at where the industry is going to make sure we’re at the forefront on any innovations,” says Hannick.

That being said, the charity does tend to shy away from adopting technology that’s right on the cutting edge because of the risks involved.

“As well as having a remit to serve the British public and their desire to take part in Comic Relief, I also have a remit here as CTO to innovate, so we’re always looking for partners who can help us be behind the envelope,” Hannick says.

“We don’t want to be right on the edge of the envelope, as that would be far too risky for a once-a-year event, but to be slightly behind the envelope is a good place to be so we can pick up on the innovative stuff that is proven to be able to deal with the unique event we have.”  

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