Helping make exam time go more smoothly with flexible hosting

The RCPCH are at the forefront of both medicine and education. Founded in 1928 and receiving Royal College status in 1996, they are the UK's foremost experts on children's health. 

We initially spoke to them via our friends at NDP Studio, who were building them a new Drupal 8 website which needed a home. They have a particularly interesting traffic issue which makes them perfect for AWS AutoScaling Groups:

A few times a year the RCPCH releases exam results for all the students and medical professionals who have taken RCPCH courses resulting in a final examination. These results releases place an enormous load on an otherwise moderately busy website, but only for a few days, while anxious scholars attempt to find out how they did. Of course, the College cannot keep infrastructure running all year round to cater for the short period of time when they receive tends of thousands more visits than usual, and this is where AutoScale comes in.

Using the AWS EC2 AutoScaling Groups feature, we grow their capacity as necessary to cope with these exam time spikes, keep it there for a week, and then scale back down again afterwards. In this way, we can avoid student frustration where the website crashes so they cannot retrieve their results, and we can do so without breaking RCPCH's budget.

Of course, there's more to it than simply adding more servers to the EC2 cluster. You have to think of and scale everything, so we also worked out scaling strategies for the RDS database and the Elasticache instances that support their EC2 web server cluster - those need to scale too! 

Furthermore, we worked with RCPCH and NDP Studio to discover and optimise external services used by the website, to ensure they do not become a bottleneck for page delivery. It's no good getting Drupal scaled up to take the load if a back end API call to a certifying body can't cope behind the scenes.

It's worth noting we also provide Drupal support on occasion to the gang at NDP, if they need some assistance with a particularly tricky issue, and the RCPCH website - while managed by NDP - uses our open source deployment scripts to push out new releases automatically.

And because RCPCH is a registered charity in the UK, we helped them set up their AWS account and benefit from the specific discounts AWS offer to non-profit organisations.

This is typical of the kind of work our systems administrators routinely do with not for profit clients. We understand budgets are tight. We work with our clients to optimise their cloud hosting and squeeze as much performance out of AWS as their budget allows, while using automation wherever possible to keep our own fees down.