A leading provider of educational services for law students turns to load balancing to address critical Web performance challenges.
One of the biggest challenges for many businesses is keeping a Website operating smoothly during major fluctuations in traffic. Lagging performance can translate into disgruntled customers and lost business. At BARBRI, a leading provider of live and online bar exam review courses, Website performance rates as critical.
"We have two periods during the year when testing cycles are at a peak and performance is paramount," said infrastructure architect Greg Birdwell. "We cannot afford to have any issues."
The company, which has helped more than 1.2 million law school graduates pass the bar exam, spun off from Thomson Reuters in 2010. When that event took place, BARBRI found itself in the unenviable position of having to set up an entire IT infrastructure, including Web servers, within six months. "We had zero assets and limited time to purchase everything we needed to operate the business, including the Website," Birdwell said. "We had to move swiftly and decisively."
The company turned to Riverbed to handle complex load-balancing tasks. During peak exam review periods in February and August, site traffic can increase from a few thousand hits per day to upwards of 50,000.
"We have to account for a Web load that ramps up and down pretty consistently and very rapidly during these periods. In addition, we have to keep the site running during the rest of the year," he said. The company also provides other educational services, including a Law Preview course that prepares students for law school, and coursework leading to certification in areas such as financial crime investigation and e-discovery.
The load balancing solution runs atop a completely virtualized server environment spanning two data centers, one in the Northern United States and one in the Southern United States. In all, the company relies on about 30 physical servers and 300 virtual servers.
Birdwell said that he and the IT staff examined a few critical issues before selecting the Riverbed technology. First, the technology had to accommodate location-based services seamlessly. "We had to make sure that traffic is routed between data centers correctly. Second, the firm required global load balancing using an active-passive approach so that it could conduct updates at one site while the other is active. Third, it needed a robust API environment and scripting language in order to customize and automate a variety of tasks.
"We now have a very flexible yet powerful rules-based system in place," Birdwell said.
Among other things, BARBRI can control which ports receive traffic from the virtual servers. "We can designate that only certain servers get access to these ports through Riverbed. This, in addition to a robust firewall, delivers a high level of security. It makes us a lot less prone to hacks and breaches," he said. What's more, "If we had some type of invasion we could control Websites without having to stop the servers."
The approach has delivered winning results.
"We have never hit the wall and consistently delivered high performance. We’ve been able to adjust and adapt dynamically and effectively," he said.
Samuel Greengard, a contributing writer for CIO Insight, writes about business, technology and other topics. His forthcoming book, The Internet of Things (MIT Press), will be released in the spring of 2015.