Founded in 1993, Open Universities Australia (OUA) is an aggregator of Australian universities and colleges that offers online distance learning to students in Australia and abroad. More than 20 leading Australian universities participate to provide higher education and professional development services. OUA is owned and operated by seven Australian universities, including Curtin University, Griffith University, Macquarie University, Monash University, RMIT University, Swinburne University, and University of South Australia.

In late 2012, OUA decided to develop Open2Study, a massive open online course (MOOC) site for online learning. Open2Study would enable students to complete four-week modules from a range of free university courses over the web. The organization established a target of 100,000 Open2Study enrollments by the end of 2013 and wanted an infrastructure that could grow to support a few hundred thousand concurrent users, a large proportion of whom would be based overseas. To meet these objectives, OUA wanted to make the site available within six months and establish a flexible project scope to support new features or accommodate changes in strategy.

Realizing that an on-premises environment would be too expensive, OUA decided to look for alternatives that could offer the right combination of elasticity and flexibility to scale rapidly. Jose Herrera-Perea, Open2Study Executive General Manager, explains, “We were expecting massive growth in new enrollments towards the end of 2013. We needed an environment that could respond to this demand without compromising performance or availability.”

OUA’s IT team had experience with Amazon Web Services (AWS) from previous roles and was aware of the platform’s capabilities. “We were operating with a startup mentality. AWS enabled us to see if the cloud platform met our needs without requiring any minimum commitments or long-term contracts,” says Steve Mactaggart, Web Optimization Specialist. “We could also talk to AWS Support to see if our service aligned with the core benefits of the AWS platform.”

The launch of the AWS Asia Pacific (Sydney) Region in 2012 was another reason that OUA chose AWS. Running in the Sydney Region would enable OUA to retain Australian student information onshore and access local AWS Support resources as needed. According to Mactaggart, “AWS Support, Business-level has provided expert technical assistance and dealt with OUA’s queries in a professional and quick manner.” After reviewing security white papers and presentations, OUA was also reassured by the security measures built into core AWS infrastructure, platforms, and services.

Open2Study uses Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment (Moodle) e-learning software and includes games and collaboration components. These systems sit behind a Drupal content management framework that course administrators use to upload materials for student access. OUA engaged Catalyst IT, a specialist Moodle consultancy and member of the AWS Partner Network (APN), to build, deploy, and manage the project. After a pilot test confirmed that AWS would scale to support student uptake of Open2Study, OUA, with help from Catalyst IT, migrated to the AWS Cloud. Figure 1 shows the OUA architecture on AWS.

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Figure 1. OUA Architecture on AWS

OUA’s production environment runs the web servers, logging systems and data files used for Open2Study. It runs on several Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) instances, including seven m1.xlarge, one m1.large, four m1.medium and one m1.small instance hosted in the Asia Pacific (Sydney) Region. Elastic Load Balancing maintains performance across the multi-node environment. OUA runs five m1.large, five m1.medium and four m1.small instances for its development environment, also in the Asia Pacific (Sydney) Region.

Four of the seven Amazon EC2 m1.xlarge instances are used to manage the Open2Study web traffic. “Our four m1.xlarge instances easily handle the production load for now,” says Mactaggart. “When OUA needs to scale up the Open2Study environment, Auto Scaling allows it to do so without disruption.” The organization uses Amazon CloudWatch to extract metrics and system analytics for OUA performance measurement tools. OUA operates a MySQL database on Amazon Relational Database Service (Amazon RDS) and deploys Amazon Route 53 for Domain Name System services that route users to relevant Open2Study web destinations.

Mactaggart is particularly impressed with the ability of AWS to scale to handle OUA’s Moodle and Drupal systems. “Because these systems are based on the LAMP technology stack, they can scale out really well on AWS if you design them correctly for state management,” he says. “We used Memcache to allow the application servers to remain stateless and scale out horizontally. Our load tests confirmed we could scale out to 16 m1.xlarge instances, without any critical performance impact on the RDS database.”

Using AWS, OUA and Catalyst IT was able to cost-effectively develop and launch the project in just 22 weeks and deliver the performance and reliability needed by Open2Study students. “The AWS Cloud supports Open2Study’s proposition of being always available to its students, regardless of where they are in the world,” says Herrera-Perea. Open2Study launched in March 2013 and by late in the year more than 110,000 students from 180 countries had enrolled in its courses, exceeding the target set by OUA in late 2012.

Running on the AWS Cloud helped OUA’s IT team accelerate time to market for new services and features. “We can have technologies in development within a day and add them to our production environment within two weeks instead of waiting until all work is completed before going live,” says Mactaggart.

OUA considers itself well prepared to support the expected surge in demand for Open2Study over the upcoming months and years. “We were extremely happy with AWS within a week of using the platform and nothing’s changed since then,” says Mactaggart. “The availability and performance of AWS has contributed to 27 percent of students completing their Open2Study courses and 97 percent of students reporting satisfaction with the website and its learning offerings.”

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