The largest institution of higher learning in Georgia, Georgia State University serves more than 51,000 students and has over 3,500 faculty members. Georgia State is ranked the fourth-most-innovative university in the nation and the eighth best in undergraduate teaching (tied with Stanford University) by U.S. News & World Report. The institution has achieved major gains in student success in the past decade. It has increased graduation rates by 22 percentage points and reduced time-to-degree by half a semester, saving students $15 million per year. Perhaps most importantly, it has eliminated achievement gaps based on race, ethnicity, and income.
Georgia State has achieved astounding results in helping students complete their degrees in part through technology innovation designed to enhance the student experience. The university’s Student Dashboard is one of many applications that the enrollment services division uses to make it easier for students to stay informed as they navigate college. It displays up-to-date information and alerts with relevant links to the student information system where students can perform key tasks such as registering for courses, paying bills, managing financial aid, and contacting advisors.
The application’s initial rollout met Georgia State’s goals, but the institution saw significant room to enhance the dashboard’s operation. For one thing, the Student Dashboard had been implemented in a legacy student portal that made adding new features and tuning system performance difficult. Additionally, the dashboard relied on the same, on-premises student portal infrastructure, which can cause performance bottlenecks during busy periods such as the beginning of the academic year.
A consolidation with Georgia Perimeter College, a nearby two-year college with six campuses and 20,000 students, provided a stimulus for Georgia State to reimagine not just the business processes behind the dashboard but also the technology supporting it. “As we merged and rethought our IT operations, it became clear that we needed to standardize our approach to building applications,” says Jaro Klc, director of strategic initiatives and development at Georgia State. “We had many legacy applications built using a wide range of tools and platforms. Establishing a cloud infrastructure stack, and DevOps process was critical. We selected the Student Dashboard as the test case for this new approach.”
Georgia State’s technology team knew that it wanted to adopt serverless architecture to achieve scalable performance while eliminating infrastructure management. After reviewing the available options, Georgia State determined that Amazon Web Services (AWS) was the best fit, and it engaged Slalom to migrate the Student Dashboard to the cloud. Klc recalls, “We chose Slalom because we needed a partner with extensive experience to help us architect the new infrastructure, but also to help us adopt best practices around cloud solution development and delivery.”
Walt Austin, director of architecture and development at Slalom, says, “In addition to having deep AWS skills and a focus on empowering clients with knowledge, we are strong proponents of serverless microservices architecture. For applications with uneven usage patterns such as the Georgia State Student Dashboard, this architecture typically provides the most consistent performance at the lowest cost.”
Georgia State’s technology team worked with Slalom to design the solution. The new architecture used Typescript to deliver a mobile and web client based on Angular 2 and Ionic 2. Typescript-based backend APIs, built using AWS Lambda serverless compute service, grab data from the student information system based on the student’s authenticated identity. A custom domain name in Amazon API Gateway routes these requests to Serverless Framework APIs. Static content is delivered via Amazon CloudFront from Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) buckets. AWS CloudFormation simplifies provisioning and management of cloud infrastructure. Amazon Virtual Private Cloud (Amazon VPC) is used for connectivity to on-premises identity and authentication servers.
Slalom cloud developers worked side by side with the Georgia State team to provide hands-on training in DevOps and cloud best practices, including the use of Git code branching strategies and lifecycle management, unit testing and test-driven development, environment-based configuration, and code reviews. They selected Jenkins as a continuous integration/continuous deployment (CI/CD) platform, and all developers received training in creating and managing new application pipelines.
The team built, tested, and deployed the application in only nine weeks. Georgia State now has a fully functioning Student Dashboard application running in the cloud. It has delivered high performance at low cost. In its initial month of release, the new student dashboard supported more than 50,000 students—serving 4.5 million AWS Lambda requests and 8.3 million Amazon API Gateway requests—for a total bill of $375. “The Amazon CloudFront CDN ensures that static content is served extremely fast, and the serverless backend scales to meet request volume seamlessly,” notes Klc.
The solution delivers single-sign-on convenience for students, thanks to successful integration with Georgia State’s on-premises OpenID service. The application architecture is highly available by default because of the geo-redundant nature of the AWS Cloud, ensuring that it is always there when students need it.
The institution has established production, quality assurance, and development environments in a logical Amazon VPC framework, paving the way for future innovations—and cost savings. “We predict that we will be able to reduce costs significantly as we move legacy applications to the cloud platform and a serverless approach,” says Klc. “This will allow us to minimize the number of virtual machines, databases, licenses, and support resources. We no longer need to provision local systems sized for peak usage. AWS scales automatically to meet our needs.”
Perhaps most importantly, AWS frees up time and resources for innovation. “AWS empowers us to reallocate resources from non-differentiating activities such as patching, upgrades, and troubleshooting to more exciting, high-value projects such as next-generation analytics and rapid and responsive solution development,” says Klc. “These are the innovations that truly help Georgia State students, faculty, and researchers to excel.”
Since its founding in 2001, Slalom has grown into a $1 billion company with over 5,000 employees. Its clients include more than half the Fortune 100, along with startups, nonprofits, and innovative organizations of all kinds. Slalom is an AWS Premier Consulting Partner in the AWS Partner Network (APN) that helps clients design, build, migrate, and manage AWS deployments to reduce complexity and maximize value.
Learn more about AWS cloud computing for education.