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UAE University Depends on F5 to Accelerate Microsoft and Education Applications

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) University understands the crucial role of technology in supporting education and research. It is therefore constantly developing the IT facilities, applications, and resources available to students and staff to help them collaborate, work more efficiently, and learn. For more than five years, the university has relied on F5 Application Delivery Controllers (ADCs) to help it deliver these vital services more quickly, securely, and reliably.

Business Challenges

UAE University works hard to deliver dependable IT services for staff and students. However, around five years ago, a range of network and application performance issues started to inconvenience users. In particular, when students tried to access the university’s student registration system at the start of the new academic year, they experienced slow response times. The university realised that its IT infrastructure was no longer able to cope with the volume of traffic generated by increased numbers of students.

At the same time, the university was planning to introduce a portal solution from SunGard to provide a common interface to a wide range of educational applications and online resources for students and staff. However, before it could deploy this portal successfully, the university had to improve the stability, speed, and security of its core infrastructure.

Several years later, as part of its ongoing commitment to improving IT facilities, the university decided to introduce Microsoft SharePoint to help its staff and students collaborate more easily. It also planned to upgrade and expand its use of Microsoft Exchange and Microsoft Lync.  The university knew that these applications would attract up to 21,000 users, all of whom would expect high availability and exceptional performance.

So, the vital importance of having a fast, secure, and reliable network came to the fore once again.

Often there is a compromise between security and speed, but with F5 we get both.” Muhammad Imran, Network and Security Manager, UAE Unive

Solution

The university initially selected four F5 BIG-IP Local Traffic Manager (LTM) Application Delivery Controllers (ADCs) to optimize its traffic flow, accelerate core applications, and intelligently balance application traffic between servers and firewalls. The F5 devices were installed at the same time as the new SunGard portal.  “We were fortunate to have the direct involvement of F5 in the implementation,” says Muhammad Imran, Network and Security Manager at UAE University. “F5 really went the extra mile to make sure that we were satisfied.”

The BIG-IP platform met the university’s requirements for more than five years, easily coping with both increasing numbers of users and the ongoing development of the student portal. However, in 2012, the university decided to set up a new, larger, virtualised data centre and expand its use of Microsoft Unified Communications applications. This significant IT transformation project provided the catalyst for the university to upgrade to F5 high-capacity VIPRION chassis and blade hardware. “We felt that the F5 VIPRION solution would help us to optimise the performance of our Microsoft solutions, as well as give us the additional capacity to support growing numbers of users,” says Imran.

VIPRION is available with preconfigured F5 iApps templates specifically for Microsoft solutions. Using these templates, the university was able to quickly and accurately set up VIPRION to optimise the performance of its new Microsoft applications. Today, VIPRION supports Microsoft SharePoint, Exchange, and Lync; the university’s SunGard portal and Blackboard timetable application; and a range of other online services. The original BIG-IP devices remain in use in the new state-of-the-art data centre, supporting the campus network.

“F5’s VIPRION platform is, without any question, exceeding our expectations in terms of Microsoft application performance. It is a cost-efficient, scalable, and comprehensive solution.” Afraa Ali Al-Shamsi, CIO, UAE University

Benefits

As soon as the university installed BIG-IP LTM, there was a dramatic improvement in the reliability of the student registration system. The university was also able to reduce the registration period from five weeks to three because the system can now cope with many more simultaneous users. Despite growing student numbers, year after year, the application has delivered consistently high performance

“In the past, users frequently experienced time-outs or pages that couldn’t be displayed, and whenever the system crashed, it took a long time to rectify the issue,” explains Sajid Ali, IT Security Officer at the university. “Thanks to the deployment of F5, we estimate that we have reduced downtime by more than 300 percent.”

Supported at first by BIG-IP devices and now by VIPRION, the university’s SunGard portal also runs extremely well and accommodates more than 21,000 users. The portal provides students with a single point of access to IT service information, university notices, email, and a new e-learning application. It also provides staff with easy access to internal email, online calendars, and key enterprise systems for Human Resources and Finance.

VIPRION plays a vital role in optimising the performance of the university’s Microsoft SharePoint, Exchange, and Lync applications. “VIPRION is, without any question, exceeding our expectations in terms of Microsoft application performance,” says Afraa Ali Al-Shamsi, CIO at UAE University. “It is a cost-efficient, scalable, and comprehensive solution.

Using VIPRION, the university’s IT team can carry out maintenance and make software updates without having to schedule downtime. The team simply takes one or two of its five SharePoint servers offline and does the required maintenance, while VIPRION seamlessly provisions application traffic via the remaining servers.

Security is always a top priority for UAE University. It has an obligation to protect student information, as well as confidential examination materials and the institution’s financial data. The F5 platform incorporates a range of advanced security features, including protection against distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, which give the university added peace of mind.  Imran says: “Often there is a compromise between security and speed, but with F5 we get both.”