The University of the Witwatersrand provides reliable, accessible remote learning options


The University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) is a multi-campus public research university situated in the northern areas of central Johannesburg, South Africa. It accommodates approximately 38,000 students per year. Prior to the COVID-19 lockdown, Wits delivered the majority of their classes on campus in a classroom. The lockdown consequently resulted in drastically increased website traffic from both faculty and students, sometimes exceeding 15,000 simultaneous sessions at peak times.

Wits experienced an outage on their on-premises Sakai learning management system (LMS) environment at peak demand of 15,000 simultaneous active sessions. Afterward, Wits urgently needed to explore solutions to provide students and faculty with reliable access to the LMS to facilitate uninterrupted learning.

“AWS came at the right time for Wits University in that a perennial problem of the learning management system going down during critical times became a thing of the past. Other than just scaling issues, the negative experience on Sakai was caused by electricity outages that left the university vulnerable to the provision of service to the students and lecturers when hosting the LMS in the data centre,” said Dr. Stanley Mpofu, chief information officer, Wits.

Remote learning options consequentially resulted in increased—and sometimes unaffordable—data usage costs for students. Wits, in collaboration with local mobile operators, sought to address affordability by waiving the cost of data to access the site, also known as zero-rate.

After exploring cloud options, Wits migrated their Sakai LMS from on-premises servers to the AWS Cloud to meet their availability, security, and compliance needs.

AWS Partner Silicon Overdrive worked closely with Wits and AWS public sector teams to architect and implement a secure, fault-tolerant, and highly available solution. Sakai LMS uses Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2), Amazon Relational Database Service (Amazon RDS), and Amazon Elastic File System (Amazon EFS) across multiple Availability Zones. Amazon CloudFront caches the Sakai LMS content to South African edge locations for fast delivery of content to students.

Turnaround time for this project was of paramount importance. The teams were able to launch the new environment and migrate from the on-premises environment to AWS in just over a month. Since the new environment went live, Wits has had 100 percent uptime. The students now have an unparalleled user experience due to fast and locally cached content, and zero-rated data charges.

“Working with AWS to achieve our availability, security, and scaling goals was a no-brainer—24x7 access from anywhere gives Wits the edge against its competitors. The architecture design was top standard leading to the mobile operators agreeing to zero-rate it after conducting extensive tests to see the design mitigates any issues that Mobile Network Operators previously had regarding cloud hosted solutions,” said Dr. Mpofu.

University of the Witwatersrand provides accessible remote learning with AWS

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