It is not just about infrastructure by the hour. It is about a whole new way of working that really fits in with our new continuous-delivery approach. 
Erik van Eekelen Chief Information Officer

Open Universities Australia (OUA) provides distance education and online courses to students in Australia and other countries. Founded in 1993, OUA is owned and operated by seven Australian universities and has 300 employees across offices in Melbourne and Adelaide. In late 2012, OUA decided to develop Open2Study, a massive open online course site for online learning. Open2Study now enables 500,000 students worldwide to complete four-week modules from a range of free university courses over the web. Since 2013, OUA has expanded from an aggregator of university services to a provider of direct education to students and businesspeople, including compliance training for companies.

OUA started running its websites and back-end systems for tasks like accounting and student management in a collocated data center. The business had invested in dedicated servers, storage, networking equipment, and associated infrastructure to run these systems. However, in 2012, OUA realized its infrastructure was not scalable enough to support planned growth and diversification without considerable additional investment. And IT team members were spending time on routine maintenance tasks rather than on projects that could add value to the business.

The infrastructure also lacked the elasticity to support demand spikes that occurred toward the end of each of the four enrolment periods for tertiary education institutions in Australia. Creating test and development environments in legacy and complex environments could take up to three months. Finally—and most importantly—the infrastructure could not adequately support the “continuous delivery” approach to software releases that OUA chief information officer, Erik van Eekelen, planned to introduce. “We had different projects happening at the same time in many of our business lines. As my responsibilities include business transformation and strategic projects as well as IT, I started to change our approach from a three-month cycle for software releases to a continuous delivery approach where we can deliver changes on a daily basis. My team also wanted to consolidate the multiple ways our developers were deploying changes into production as this was limiting our ability to guarantee consistency, quality, and speed to market for our updates and applications,” says van Eekelen.  

OUA initially evaluated Amazon Web Services (AWS) for its Open2Study Massive Open Online Couse (MOOC) platform in late 2012 and quickly settled on the cloud services provider. OUA’s IT team had past experience with AWS from previous roles, and the education-services provider could run Open2Study in AWS without any minimum commitments or long-term contracts. In addition, the launch of the AWS Asia-Pacific (Sydney) Region enabled OUA to retain Australian student information onshore and access local AWS support resources as required. OUA also reviewed security measures by AWS and was confident that student information would be adequately protected. The education services provider launched its Open2Study MOOC site in AWS in March 2013. The agility and flexibility of the AWS infrastructure enabled the business to build Open2Study in only 22 weeks and support 110,000 students a few months later. (Read the AWS case study from 2013).

This experience convinced OUA to migrate its websites and back-end systems to AWS. “We had the positive outcomes of Open2Study to draw on, and saw that AWS had the scale that we would require over time. AWS also had automation tools such as AWS CloudFormation which allowed us to define the creation of new environments as repeatable, version controlled, templates, and there was a great community of people around AWS that worked to support the continuous delivery practices that we were implementing. That’s what we have always liked about AWS—it is not just about infrastructure by the hour. It is about a whole new way of working that really fits in with how we wanted to work,” says van Eekelen.

OUA started migrating its back-end systems and websites to the AWS infrastructure in late November 2014 and completed the project—including switching off all its infrastructure in the collocated data center—in late May 2015. “Most of the complexity of the project involved bringing legacy applications such as a 32-bit PeopleSoft Campus system into AWS and ensuring they operated smoothly, while allowing OUA to benefit from the scalability and automation that AWS provides,” says van Eekelen.

OUA received support from AWS in completing the project on time and within budget. “The AWS architects and technical account manager were very important to the success of this project. AWS was familiar with security and architecture best practices in education, e-commerce, and other industries, and challenged us on architecture decisions if they thought we were going in the wrong direction. In fact the transition of our systems to AWS enabled us to address some issues regarding our security policies and concepts that we had on our radar for a while, and enabled us to adopt some AWS best practices,” says van Eekelen.

“OUA’s systems comprise a number of different products, from commercial solutions like PeopleSoft Campus and IBM DataStage, to internally developed web applications like the Java/Spring powered OUA website. During the AWS migrations, all of these system were redeployed in as much of a ‘Cloud First’ approach as possible,” says Steve Mactaggart, manager of DevOps and Web Development. Through the use of Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2), Elastic Load Balancing, AWS Storage Gateway and Amazon Virtual Private Cloud (Amazon VPC), all key systems in OUA have been designed to deliver a controlled secure approach with a focus on high availability. Moving Oracle databases onto Amazon Relational Database Service (Amazon RDS) has dramatically simplified OUA's database management requirements, and by integrating higher-level AWS services such as Amazon ElastiCache, Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3), Amazon Simple Queue Service (Amazon SQS), Amazon Simple Email Service (Amazon SES), Amazon ElasticSearch Service, the overall architecture has been simplified and allowed less servers to be managed.

One of the business's key deliverable was a focus on the consistency of development and test environments, ensuring that all layers are as consistent as possible. By leveraging AWS CloudFormation in conjunction with Chef—an open source solution that allows DevOps engineers to write infrastructure changes as code—all changes to the environments are controlled, documented by default, and it is easier for OUA to introduce a consistent change management practice.

OUA is now delivering its applications and websites from a cost-effective, scalable infrastructure with the elasticity to support demand fluctuations and the automation to support continuous delivery. “AWS has given us the tools to release changes in a more flexible and automated way than in our collocated data center. We have been able to look at the steps required to deliver new applications and changes into the environment, and reduce them by applying continuous delivery practices. We now deliver new releases almost every day and greatly shorten the time needed to provide value to our internal and external customers,” says van Eekelen.

OUA now has the ability to change everything in the application stack in a controlled way, and changes can be made in a matter of minutes, allowing the technology team to decrease the time to create a new environment from three months to less than two hours. Formalizing continuous delivery has also enabled van Eekelen to provide a single process for developers to deploy changes to production. “We can now guarantee consistency, quality, and speed to market, and find the information we need to resolve any problems with production at a faster rate,” he says.

AWS has also enabled OUA to establish plans to reduce infrastructure costs by up to 30 percent over the next two years. This equates to up to AU$1 million (US$726,850) in savings relative to the cost of running OUA’s physical infrastructure in the collocated data center. The savings are expected to come from only running OUA’s production systems at peak capacity during enrolment periods, and turning off test and development environments over the weekend and at night. Further, OUA has been able to reduce the cost of database licenses due to the way AWS supports databases through Amazon RDS. “My team has a lot more visibility into costs and can quickly drill down and find out where we might be spending more than budgeted,” says van Eekelen.

While OUA has retained the same number of IT team members, automating the setup of new environments has enabled them to spend more time on higher value work while minimizing infrastructure bottlenecks that could delay projects.

The business is now supporting up to 1,800 views of its higher education web pages and 200 financial transactions per hour during peak periods without performance concerns. “The performance of our websites has improved up to 20 percent in AWS relative to our physical data center. What I’ve found working with AWS—from the start until now—is that they have provided us with a service that makes us want to go back for more,” says van Eekelen.

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