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Sheffield Hallam University Improves Reliability of Online Services

At Sheffield Hallam University, more than 40,000 students, lecturers, and support staff rely on a single sign-on solution to gain access to many different web-based applications. When this vital gateway started to become unreliable, the university replaced it with F5 BIG-IP Access Policy Manager (APM). Now, users have a consistently positive online experience, while the university has increased application availability, reduced costs, and improved security.

Business Challenges

Sheffield Hallam University operates around 30 different web-based applications that are accessible to 35,000 students and 5,000 staff members. The most significant of these applications is a Virtual Learning Environment, which provides a vital portal to essential teaching materials. Other critical online systems include the university’s Syllabus Plus timetabling application, staff intranet, careers function, Millennium library system, and an IP-based TV service for distributing video.

For many of these web-based applications, the university operated a single sign-on (SSO) system for authenticating users. This system meant that, if students wanted to check their timetables, look up assignments, and view videos, they wouldn’t have to keep entering different usernames and passwords for each task.

Over time, however, the university’s SSO system had become unreliable, and staff and students frequently experienced interruptions in service. To make matters worse, the IT team found it difficult to get effective support from the software vendor. “The single sign-on system failed often enough to be annoying, but not often enough to make the cause of the problem easy to diagnose,” says Mark Charles worth, Operations Manager for Networks and Infrastructure at Sheffield Hallam University. “In the end, we just decided to move to an alternative product.”

“The quality of service that F5 ensures for users is phenomenal.” Mark Charlesworth, Operations Manager for Networks and Infrastructure Sheffield Hallam University

Solution

Sheffield Hallam University began a search for a new SSO system and, unsurprisingly, good support and reliability were essential requirements. The university also wanted to find an SSO solution that was designed specifically to interface with a diverse range of multi-vendor applications.   

After researching a number of different options, Sheffield Hallam University discovered that F5 could meet all its requirements. F5 BIG-IP Access Policy Manager (APM) facilitates SSO and allows IT teams to manage access policies for diverse applications very easily. Available as an add-on module to F5 BIG-IP Local Traffic Manager (LTM), the solution provides a single point of control for remote access, web access management, and virtual desktop infrastructure.

The university purchased two F5 BIG-IP LTM devices, both with BIG-IP APM modules. It installed one unit in each of its two data centres and configured them in an active/ passive configuration, so that if there were a disaster at one data centre, the university could transfer all services to its backup data centre and continue operating IT services as normal.

Like all of F5 products, BIG-IP APM is managed using F5’s iRules control language. Sheffield Hallam University made extensive use of iRules to set up its SSO functionality and ensure that it operates seamlessly in a complex application environment. “Every online application we have is very different,” says Charlesworth. “iRules gives my team the flexibility to set up the access control for any application, any way they want to.”

The migration to BIG-IP LTM had the added advantage of giving Sheffield Hallam University a robust application delivery solution as part of the package. The university therefore decided to gradually retire its existing load balancers and use BIG-IP LTM instead. “We found F5’s application delivery solution to be very reliable, easy to manage, and easy to set up,” explains Charlesworth. “By phasing out our use of separate content switches, we are able to reduce costs.”

“F5 gives us a more reliable, manageable, and secure solution.” Mark Charlesworth, Operations Manager for Networks and Infrastructure Sheffield Hallam University

Benefits

The use of F5 BIG-IP Access Policy Manager has dramatically improved the reliability of the SSO function at Sheffield Hallam University. As many as 10,000 users may be using the university’s online applications at any one time, and the F5 product handles this volume of traffic effortlessly, delivering high performance at all times. The improved reliability of the SSO facility enables the university to ensure that all its staff and students have a consistently positive experience when using the university’s online services.

The use of dual BIG-IP devices provides added resilience for the university. Once in the first 15 months, the university needed to shut down one of its BIG-IP devices for a brief time. All functions automatically and instantly switched to the second BIG-IP device, without users noticing any difference in performance or interruption in service.  “The quality of service that F5 ensures for users is phenomenal,” Charlesworth says.

Most significantly, the deployment of F5 has led to a substantial reduction in downtime. The university used to have to work within scheduled maintenance windows when it wanted to bring applications offline temporarily to make updates. The IT team also used to have to plan some maintenance tasks for weekends and evenings to minimise the disruption to users. F5 BIG-IP products enable the university to carry out many maintenance activities at any time, without causing any interruption to services. “Tens of hours of application downtime have been eliminated each month across all services,” says Charlesworth.

As well as reducing downtime, the maintenance improvements have also led to cost savings for the university because the IT team doesn’t have to be compensated for working unsocial hours. “The savings made by not having to pay overtime could be as much as £14,000 to £20,000 per year,” Charlesworth estimates.

The use of BIG-IP devices helps the university to ensure tight application security by providing an additional layer of defence between the Internet and the back office applications. BIG-IP APM also helps to reduce security risks because users have to remember only one user profile and are less likely to store passwords in their browsers or write them down. BIG-IP LTM further enhances security by enabling the university to make security patches and application updates more promptly. Charlesworth concludes: “F5 gives us a more reliable, manageable, and secure solution.”