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University Delivers Online Learning to 100,000+ Users with F5 Solution

Using a unified traffic management and security solution from F5, a large university improved the performance of its hosted learning management system (LMS) and consolidated multiple application environments. The solution improved the security of all core IT systems, reduced hardware costs, and expanded the university’s potential for revenue growth.

Business Challenges

A large university played a pivotal role in helping modernize Midwestern education. Thanks to the commitment of the university’s IT department, a Blackboard learning management system (LMS) is now integrated into the curriculum of 11 colleges and high schools in one Midwestern state.

First introduced to students and faculty in 1996, Blackboard gained instant popularity, and the deployment quickly grew from a single server to several servers. “That’s when we started using an entry-level F5 BIG-IP device running BIG-IP Local Traffic Manager (LTM) to help us intelligently direct traffic across multiple Blackboard servers and ensure reliable application performance,” says the applications analyst at the university. “Other IT teams had been using F5 for years to support various systems and were very happy with the quality of F5 products and services.”

The university’s home state had long promoted the idea of shared services across educational institutions, so in 2000, the university began offering Blackboard as a hosted service to other schools. “We realized scalability and performance would be ongoing considerations, especially as more schools integrated online learning into their curricula,” says the college’s applications analyst. “If the hosting service was successful, we knew we would eventually need to scale up again.” Indeed, in 2006, the university upgraded the existing F5 devices to two BIG-IP 3400 devices.

By 2010, demand for Blackboard had skyrocketed. Ten state colleges and high schools were among the university’s Blackboard customers, and the hosted service was reaching nearly 100,000 users. Blackboard was running in a virtualization environment on nine physical servers and all traffic was still being managed by the BIG-IP devices.

As more and more content was placed into Blackboard, data security became a top priority. IT had supported 1024-bit SSL encryption to protect Blackboard transactions, and when the standard SSL key length moved to 2048 bits, the IT team adopted that new standard. Although the new key length provides a higher level of encryption, it also significantly increased the SSL processing load. “Before long we were maxing out SSL transactions on the F5 devices, and we didn’t want that to cause page load delays in Blackboard,” says the applications analyst.

"With F5, we can run our strategic applications on commodity servers … and that saves us about $120,000 a year …” Applications Analyst, Large Midwestern University

Solution

Rather than choosing an isolated solution dedicated to Blackboard, the support team worked with the broader IT department to find a solution that benefited the entire IT infrastructure. “We discussed the advantages of consolidating several environments under a single traffic management solution,” says the applications analyst. “Those would include Blackboard, SAP, and our web presence, which provides services such as email, admissions, financial aid, one-stop student services, faculty grading, and alumni news.”

After evaluating several vendors’ solutions, IT chose to upgrade to F5 BIG-IP 3900 devices for several reasons. “F5 met our Blackboard performance requirements, enabled us to easily handle 2048-bit SSL processing, and provided more scalability than other vendors’ solutions,” says the applications analyst. “Also, F5 has been one of our best technology partners for nearly a decade, and we knew we could count on them to be there for us over the long term.”

The solution also enables IT to add BIG-IP modules—specifically, F5’s web application firewall, BIG-IP Application Security Manager (ASM), and BIG-IP Global Traffic Manager (GTM)-to the BIG-IP 3900 devices without affecting application performance. “With BIG-IP ASM, we can mitigate security threats such as DDoS attacks across all of our core applications and systems,” says the applications analyst. ”In the future, BIG-IP GTM will support our broader disaster recovery plans.”

In September 2011, the IT team and F5 began redesigning the infrastructure, bringing the three previously separate environments under a single umbrella behind the F5 devices. “It took time and expert planning to make this transition, and this is where the value of our partnership with F5 really proved its worth,” says the applications analyst. “F5’s support services are phenomenal. They did whatever it took to help us stay operational during that time, especially as we ran up against SSL processing limits with Blackboard. Not all vendors are willing to provide that kind of support.”

“Without F5 … we would never have been able to scale our Blackboard deployment to serve so many users.” Applications Analyst, Large Midwestern University

Benefits

Since deploying a consolidated F5 solution, the university has ensured the performance and scalability of Blackboard, optimized the security of all core IT systems, reduced its hardware costs, and increased its potential to drive additional revenue from hosted services.

Scalability of hosted LMS services for thousands

The applications analyst credits F5 with enabling IT to successfully deliver Blackboard as a service to other schools: “Without F5 and the outstanding professional support they provide, we would never have been able to scale our Blackboard deployment to serve so many users. Many schools simply would not have had access to such technology.”

The applications analyst continues, “At the beginning of the 2012 fall semester, we anticipated heavy Blackboard traffic because enrollment had risen. We were able to increase our Blackboard server capacity by 50 percent without buying any additional hardware.” Instead, the team simply added virtual machines to some of their existing servers. “The great thing about the F5 devices is they don’t require any configuration changes; they automatically load balance additional traffic without any interruption in service.”

Optimized performance of all IT systems

The BIG-IP devices deliver optimum application performance, restoring up to 30 percent of a server’s processing power simply by offloading SSL processing. “Moving to a higher level of SSL encryption definitely requires more processing capacity, but the BIG-IP 3900 devices handle it with ease,” says the applications analyst. “We can process thousands of 2048-bit SSL transactions per second without any performance impact to Blackboard or our other applications.”

F5’s unique scripting language, iRules, helps IT manage traffic optimally. “iRules is our first line of defense whenever there’s a problem with an application or clients connecting to an application,” says the team’s IT architect. “We use it extensively to solve application issues that often occur randomly and without warning.”

The team recalls an incident when the latest version of a popular web browser suddenly began opening 30 to 40 times the typical number of Blackboard sessions, instantly overloading the servers. “While other universities had to block use of that browser completely, we solved the problem with a simple, seven-line iRule redirecting that traffic to a more appropriate site,” says the university’s operating systems analyst. A similar iRule enables the team to direct mobile device requests to specific servers designed to handle such traffic. “Now u get fully optimized Blackboard functionality on their mobile devices,” he adds.

The university also uses iRules to optimize its legacy applications, which often do not work as expected in load balanced environments. “With iRules, we can significantly improve the availability of legacy applications and make them run the way they should—without changing any of their code,” says the IT architect. “That’s extremely valuable to us.”

Improved security

While BIG-IP LTM helps protect Blackboard data with a higher level of encryption, BIG-IP Application Security Manager (ASM) provides web application firewall protection across the entire IT infrastructure. “We have moved every one of our strategic systems behind the BIG-IP devices, which are all running BIG-IP Application Security Manager,” says the applications analyst. “This has been an incredibly effective security strategy for us. It not only protects our current systems, it enables us to offer customers more services in the future, including those that involve credit card processing, which typically require PCI compliance.”

The F5 solution also helps protect legacy systems. The IT architect says, “Because the BIG-IP device sits in front of dozens of systems and has a single IP address, we never have to expose our backend systems directly outside of our network; it lets us protect all of those systems that we want to shield with an alias.”

Cost savings and revenue generation in one solution

The hosted Blackboard service generates between $400,000 and $500,000 in revenue per year for the university, which provides cost recovery for IT services. In addition, because the BIG-IP devices offload much of the compute-intensive processing from servers, it helps the university save money. “With F5, we can run our strategic applications on commodity servers rather than on costly high-end equipment, and that saves us about $120,000 a year in hardware costs,” says the applications analyst. ”It actually saves money for everyone because the costs to support Blackboard can be distributed across all customers.”