Founded in 1842 by a priest from the Congregation of Holy Cross, the University of Notre Dame provides a distinctive voice in higher education that is at once rigorously intellectual, unapologetically moral in orientation, and firmly embracing of a service ethos. The University is organized into four undergraduate colleges — Arts and Letters, Science, Engineering, and the Mendoza College of Business — the School of Architecture, the Law School, the Graduate School, and 14 major research institutes. It enrolls approximately 12,125 students overall and 8,500 undergraduates.

High-visibility events can create very large spikes of traffic for university websites. Notre Dame wanted to be sure that its systems could handle big bursts of traffic whenever the university was in the news. The university also wanted to be prepared in terms of disaster response. “We wanted to be able to handle the abnormally high web traffic that might occur during unusual circumstances, such as a major news announcement, sporting event or emergency,” says Mike Chapple, Senior Director for Enterprise Support Services. “But it’s very difficult to design for that on-site. Provisioning resources for the edge case is an inefficient use of resources, when most of the time those servers would sit unused.”

The school had been hosting its website from its own infrastructure on campus with disaster recovery hosted at a colocated facility a few hundred miles away. Notre Dame’s IT department had a procedure in place for serving up web pages offsite in case of an emergency, but the switch-over process was time-consuming. When they ran emergency simulations, the developers found that they weren’t able to deliver optimal service. “We couldn’t deliver the capacity we needed with our existing servers,” Chapple says. “With some engineering, we were able to meet the requirement, but we would have had to allocate capacity for peak use because we didn’t have the ability to automatically scale.” After evaluating the options, the university decided to migrate its website to Amazon Web Services (AWS).

Switching to AWS meant that the university could rely on multiple Availability Zones to provide resiliency in case of a natural disaster—and would provide the on-demand scalability that the school needed during bursts of traffic to its website.

Notre Dame uses three different Availability Zones for availability. Elastic Load Balancing and Auto Scaling are used to help balance the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) instances that run the web servers. Amazon CloudWatch is used to alert the university to scaling events. The university is also using Reserved Instances.

The site went live a few days before Notre Dame played in the BCS national championship football game. During the game, traffic went up five-fold from a daily average of 38,000 visitors to more than 150,000 visitors. “We need to be able to scale fast when Notre Dame is in the news,” Chapple says. “When we have to handle large bursts of traffic to our site, AWS handles the demand reliably—even when we grew from 38,000 home page visitors to more than 150,000 in a single day.”

“Using AWS to host our website benefits us in a number of ways,” Chapple continues. “Using multiple Availability Zones gives us the resiliency to remove geographic dependencies. We have also been able to stop using a remote colocation facility so our engineers don’t have to drive a couple hundred miles to maintain equipment.”

The site, powered by AWS, has continued to exceed expectations. Implementation went smoothly and Chapple estimates that AWS is approximately 40 percent less expensive than the university’s prior implementation. “It also has more flexibility and greater performance,” Chapple says. “We expect the performance to continue to increase and the costs to decline when we take advantage of Amazon CloudFront.”

“It comes down to peace of mind,” Chapple says. “No matter what happens on campus—from a big game to a power outage, or even an emergency—we’re covered. We’re not going to be scrambling to figure something out.”

To learn more about how AWS can help your data needs, visit our Web Applications details page: http://aws.amazon.com/web-mobile-social/.