eLearning use soars through lockdown

During coronavirus, use of the Charity Learning Consortium’s eLearning has soared – with more than a million learners online in the first week of lockdown alone. It’s meant some long days and late nights for our Head of Technology, Josh Willcock. He explains how he faced the challenge of a 350% surge in use. 

What has been the knock-on effect of lockdown on the use of eLearning provided by the Charity Learning Consortium?
Before coronavirus, around 300,000 people used our eLearning every week. In the first seven days of lockdown we had more than 1.1 million unique learners access the platforms! More people accessed our services on the first Wednesday of lockdown than during business hours in the whole of the previous week. Even the first Sunday of lockdown had far higher usage than a normal Monday. Allowing for new members joining us, our average eLearning use would never usually increase more than 20% from one period to the next. We were seeing staggering increases of 350%, consistently, throughout the day.

What challenges did that pose?
Our Cloud network is designed to respond to increased usage by growing and scaling in different ways to handle additional traffic. Our AWS hosted network scaled brilliantly – just as Netflix, Reddit and Pinterest had to. Most of our network scaled incredibly fast and responded well. But no amount of load testing prior to this could have predicted such a surge in use and, unfortunately, there were parts of the network that were not designed to scale to this level. 

Although about 90% of the network could scale when required, there were some bottlenecks. As these were dealt with they would increase load in another part of the network, which felt like chasing an underground pipe – everytime one bottleneck was relieved it would show us the next one.

How did you meet those challenges? 
We worked around the clock with cloud hosting experts ClearCloud (owned by UK Fast) to improve our network infrastructure. For the first three weeks of lockdown, I worked at least 12 hours a day, often more. We had to watch what happened during the day to identify the bottlenecks and then deploy fixes in the evenings and weekends when usage was slightly lower. 

Coming at a time when Netflix announced they would be lowering their bit-rate to handle load, we also investigated unique ways to solve the issues that we had. People think the cloud is magical. The truth is, the cloud was running out of servers.

What lessons did you learn?
In the past, we had allowed for 2.5 times the amount of average use, so we thought that we had plenty of headroom. Our system is now primed to deal with seven to eight times more usage than normal, and almost all ‘non scaling’ aspects of the network now scale. We’ve learned that you can never anticipate quite how quickly something can change. We’ve learnt that even when something seems like an impossible task it can be beaten. And we’ve learnt that even giants like Netflix – with hundreds of engineers – have similar issues to us.

About Josh

Josh Willcock is the Head of Technology at the Charity Learning Consortium. With a degree in design and valuable experience in technology giants, Josh joined the Consortium in 2014. He created the RoadMap feature set, fixes bugs, and regularly contributes to the Moodle Community.

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