At British Columbia’s School District 42, an impending snowstorm would bring hope to students, anxiety to their caretakers, and dread to school administrators and IT staff. Each major event triggered an avalanche of inquiries that could slow or crash servers, and the school district needed to find a solution. To keep communication channels open, School District 42 is migrating its websites to the Microsoft Azure platform, including Azure Database for MySQL. Now, websites stay up and running, whatever the weather.
Handling overwhelming site traffic
Located less than 70 kilometres from Vancouver on Canada’s west coast, School District 42 serves 15,000 elementary and high school students in the Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows communities. It’s a beautiful area with a temperate marine climate that provides some of the warmest and wettest conditions in Canada. Snowfall is typically light, but when major storms occur, the school district’s website faces a sharp spike in traffic from nervous parents and other caregivers.
“We have 15,000 students in the district, which equals roughly 30,000 parents or caretakers,” says Matthew Williams, Systems Analyst at School District 42. “On a snow day, parents won’t just hit our website once, they’ll stay there and hit refresh repeatedly to see if anything changes. After the last big snowstorm we had, I checked the analytics and there was a 600 percent increase in page views compared to the normal traffic on our website.”
Keeping communication channels open
Based on the open-source WordPress content management system, the school district’s websites ran on-premises. For better resiliency and easier management, School District 42 decided to migrate its sites to the Microsoft Azure platform. The school district was already using Microsoft Office 365 for student email and the Operations Management Suite to monitor firewalls, so using Azure for websites was an easy choice.
After moving its main website to Azure, School District 42 had an opportunity to test the new environment when record-breaking snowstorms hit the Vancouver area. Although the forecast made the communications manager nervous, Williams wasn’t worried. “She said, ‘Are you sure we’re going to be OK?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, this is not going to be a problem. So then the snow comes, traffic hits the website, and everything just works. On the other hand, several other school districts in the region had their websites crash.”
At first, the school district ran the WordPress sites with the MySQL database on Azure Virtual Machines. Then, Williams and the team at School District 42 decided to implement the new Azure Database for MySQL offering, which provides MySQL in a platform-as-a-service (PaaS) environment. The school district is also using Azure Web Apps, a feature of Azure App Service. “The ability to either autoscale or prescale our websites is important. We can anticipate traffic loads and not have to worry about them,” says Williams. “And having that communications channel open in case of any kind of power outage or emergency is a big deal for us.”
With MySQL as a fully hosted service, the school district benefits from both easier management and better resilience. “We don’t have to worry about what the web server is doing or if the log file is filling up,” says Williams. “Azure Database for MySQL just abstracts everything to the PaaS layer, and we don’t have to manage the server itself. It makes life easier.”
Running in the cloud has also alleviated the hassle of maintaining an on-premises disaster recovery solution. “We attempted website replication in-house previously, and it was just too much to manage,” says Williams. “There was a large overhead required to manage the database and website replication, and it wasn’t very reliable. Using services like Azure Database for MySQL is much simpler.”
Leading the way with Azure
Like other organizations, schools need to find ways to benefit from digital technologies while keeping management costs and complexity down. But with children in their care, schools have an especially high imperative to keep communication channels open. Now, School District 42 can meet that goal. “Using Azure for our websites has made the ability to communicate with parents a non-issue,” says Williams. “For example, our staff used to panic about snow days, and now everybody has forgotten that they were ever a problem because the site stays up. Put simply, it’s a win for us.”
The cloud project is already attracting attention. The school district’s presentation on the topic at the Microsoft Connected Learning Conference in October 2016 generated considerable interest. Buzz is building at the local level too. “We talk to quite a few local school districts and share ideas,” says Williams. “Azure is always a topic that comes up.”
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