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Pearson Digitally Transforms on AWS

2021

Pearson cut costs by $5 million in 1 year, scaled to serve hundreds of millions of learners, and removed the burden of database management from in-house staff by using AWS. The global provider of educational content, assessment, and digital services had legacy monolithic on-premises applications and data centers that struggled to scale and inhibited innovation, so Pearson migrated to AWS to modernize using Amazon ECS, Amazon EC2, and Aurora, fully managed by Amazon RDS. On AWS, Pearson optimizes costs by automatically scaling across a variety of applications, operates more efficiently, and is able to drive innovation in its applications and services.

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We need to be able to operate on a global scale. It’s how we can best take advantage of the AWS services in front of us.”

Ian Wright
Vice President of Infrastructure and Operations, Pearson

As a leader in the educational field, Pearson provides content, assessment, and digital services to learners, educational institutions, employers, governments, and partners globally. For years, Pearson’s teams managed on-premises technology, which was not scalable or efficient. Online academic testing required millions of learners to log in to Pearson services all at once, resulting in huge traffic fluctuations. Having the server capacity to handle spikes in volume meant Pearson had to buy enough hardware so that its on-premises systems could meet those spikes—but during low-traffic periods, expensive hardware sat unused.

In pursuit of a scalable, cost-efficient solution, Pearson migrated its on-premises operations to Amazon Web Services (AWS). It digitally transformed its technology stack using AWS services such as Amazon Aurora, a relational database built for the cloud that is fully managed by Amazon Relational Database Service (Amazon RDS), which makes it simple to set up, operate, and scale the database. On AWS, Pearson increased scalability, optimized costs, increased agility, and improved innovation.

Starting the Digital Transformation

Operating in 70 countries, Pearson provides interactive educational learning and assessment tools to enable more effective teaching and personalized learning at scale. For decades, the company had legacy on-premises applications and a large monolithic Oracle data center. But this infrastructure inhibited change, was complex to operate, and siloed teams. “We had business-independent teams performing application engineering, database engineering, and software engineering,” explains Ian Wright, Pearson’s vice president of infrastructure and operations. “We had infrastructure teams in a different organization doing virtualization, storage, networks, and operational support systems. It was an absolute nightmare to get anything done quickly.” The systems were also susceptible to distributed denial-of-service attacks, or cyberattacks, and they lacked much-needed scalability for nationwide testing. “During high-stakes testing, the East Coast lights up at 8:00 a.m.,” says Wright. “A few million learners hit our systems all at once. Then that spike in demand travels like a wave across the country. We just couldn’t handle that in the data centers.”

The company began its migration from on-premises operations to AWS services in 2012. Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2), a web service that provides secure, resizable compute capacity in the cloud and is designed to make web-scale cloud computing simpler for developers, has helped Pearson scale on demand. “We want to focus on the core capabilities that Pearson has and develop them rather than going in and investing people, time, and resources into skills and capabilities that can be gained from AWS directly,” says Syed Saleem Javid Brahmanapalli, Pearson’s vice president of systems engineering for higher education.

Increasing Performance Using a Host of Services from AWS

A large part of Pearson’s digital transformation has been its ability to reconfigure its monolithic applications into microservices. Using Aurora, Pearson has decoupled large monolithic applications into smaller components, modernizing its processes and giving the company more flexibility in terms of functionality. The scalable infrastructure enables Pearson to provision extra capacity during peaks and scale down in real time as traffic subsides. And since the pay-as-you-go pricing model means Pearson only pays for the compute it uses, it can scale up and down cost effectively. The fully managed service of Amazon RDS removes the burden of database maintenance from Pearson’s in-house staff. “Folks who historically acted as database administrators hardly even touch a database now,” says Wright. “They’re doing more high-value work and are enjoying it.”

On AWS, Pearson has seen significant cost savings. Twice a year, when schools are back in session for the spring and fall semesters, the company sees spikes in online volume of 60 percent. After undergoing a cost-optimization initiative within its higher education apps, Pearson’s spending decreased almost 28 percent from $18 million to $13 million in just 1 year.

Because Pearson’s products have to scale to serve hundreds of millions of global users, the company realized that automation was key. So it investigated how to scale using minimum manual effort and discovered Amazon Elastic Container Service (Amazon ECS), a fully managed container orchestration service that helped Pearson build a clean delivery pipeline. “We have a very good set of core services from AWS that we use across many of our own products and services,” says Wright.

Containerizing its Windows applications improved the company’s agility and has helped support more innovation across teams. For example, Schoolnet, an application Pearson developed in the late 1990s that enables teachers to create and manage large-scale assessments, found incredible success on AWS. “We saw a significant cost benefit after migrating Schoolnet to AWS, but we also learned a lot,” says Wright. “That was one of the first big Windows systems that we migrated to AWS, and we were able to take advantage of a lot of diverse services from AWS. With the capabilities we’ve gained by migrating to the cloud, our integration with other products and services has been amazing.” Now teachers can use Schoolnet to write tests in advance and send them through Pearson’s training engines, where both multiple-choice and open-ended questions can be scored on the teachers’ behalf.

Further Expanding Its Global Reach on AWS

Pearson modernized its outdated technology stack by using AWS to increase the agility of its applications, optimize costs, increase scalability, and drive further innovation in areas like machine learning, which Pearson may use to automatically grade and flag fraudulent test takers.

“By using AWS, our ability to take something from concept or from new release, run it through a set of environments, and test it quickly has significantly improved,” says Wright.

Looking forward, Pearson plans to reduce its technical debt and provide its software engineering teams with consumable observability services that will help them measure the state of Pearson’s system by its outputs. According to Wright, Pearson will also continue to pursue global scalability: “Being able to deliver a consistent service across multiple regions is currently something we’re working hard on. We need to be able to operate on a global scale. It’s how we can best take advantage of the AWS services in front of us.”


About Pearson

Pearson provides content, assessment, and digital services to learners, educational institutions, employers, governments, and other partners globally. It helps equip learners with the skills they need to enhance employability prospects and succeed.

Benefits of AWS

  • Decreased spending by $5 million in 1 year
  • Scales to serve hundreds of millions of learners
  • Removed burden of database management from in-house staff
  • Increased innovation of its applications and services

AWS Services Used

Amazon EC2

Amazon EC2 is a web service that provides secure, resizable compute capacity in the cloud. It is designed to make web-scale cloud computing easier for developers.

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Amazon RDS

Amazon RDS makes it easy to set up, operate, and scale a relational database in the cloud.


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Amazon Aurora

Amazon Aurora is a MySQL and PostgreSQL-compatible relational database built for the cloud, that combines the performance and availability of traditional enterprise databases with the simplicity and cost-effectiveness of open source databases.

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Amazon ECS

Amazon ECS is a fully managed container orchestration service. Customers such as Duolingo, Samsung, GE, and Cookpad use ECS to run their most sensitive and mission critical applications because of its security, reliability, and scalability.

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