Thursday, 21 August 2014

The tech that gets you (A-level) results


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Thursday 14th August marked the day students across the country received their A-level results. But it wasn’t just stressful for the students - take a moment to appreciate the titanic task of UCAS’ IT team working behind the scenes.

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (known to us as UCAS) is responsible for managing all university and college applications. It processes over 650,000 applications a year with the service peaking massively in mid-August.

And this time last week, UCAS sprang into action for what was undoubtedly one formidable working day.

Comprised of about 20 people, UCAS’ Joint Operations Centre (JOC) features the organisation’s IT director, systems operations staff, architects and workers from suppliers such as Amazon, Microsoft and Oracle.

The JOC works with operational intelligence provided by machine data indexer, Splunk. Following a migration to the cloud, UCAS has been using Splunk to monitor its IT infrastructure (the migration actually won a Computer Weekly User Award).

Before the introduction of this cutting-edge tech, UCAS was faced with the monumental challenge of searching and visualising a massive volume of machine-generated data. Now, with the introduction of Splunk, UCAS can troubleshoot, manage performance and use analytics to support the IT team.

'Artists' intepretation
Image courtesy of Grafixar/morgueFile

Ensuring an uninhibited service is paramount. No more so than during Thursday’s ultra-peak time, where thousands of students will be simultaneously accessing information through UCAS’ Track portal.

Splunk Enterprise is deployed across 40 servers and about 70 log sources, which are in turn deployed through Amazon Web Services. By indexing, searching, alerting and reporting on data from across UCAS’ entire infrastructure, Splunk provides the JOC with a series of visualisations of their performance, key operational metrics and the queries they are running.

Keeping the system operational is a considerable challenge – last year saw the Track system, hosted on the Microsoft Azure cloud service, dealing with more than 180 logins per second.

The operation is based in Cheltenham, where 10 gigantic screens monitor the entire system. Two of these screens are devoted to Splunk which in turn has 10 dashboards created through queries in the software. Some dashboards are devoted to tracking the response time on an applicant enquiry whilst others display response time over a 24-hour period.

Like the phoenix, ‘UCAS lives and dies on one day a year,’ states Peter Raymond, Enterprise IT Architect at UCAS.

Chances are, it’s wasn’t just students experiencing sleepless nights last week.  

About the Author:       
Alex writes for Firebrand Training on a number of IT related topics. This includes exams, training, certification trends, project management, certification, careers advice and the industry itself.