Humans are infinitely adaptable, and the Covid-19 pandemic very quickly showed that we are able to pivot when necessary. Nowhere was this more pronounced than in the world of work and learning: when the severity of the virus became known and countries went into severe lockdowns forcing millions of people to switch to online platforms almost overnight.
Fortunately for students and lecturers at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), the online platforms were already in place so they could immediately move from physical to virtual learning and working.
However due to the sudden increase in user numbers during exam time and with a new security imperative, an unexpected strain was placed on those systems.
With the planned sharp increase in remote student numbers as the lockdown was imposed, the Wits’ Sakai Learning Management System (LMS) had to be hosted at AWS to allow scaling and mitigate against interruptions caused by high numbers.
Taking learning into the cloud
Dr Stanley Mpofu, CIO of Wits University, said the need to enhance and facilitate online teaching and learning was an urgent requirement, prompting the University to move the Sakai Learning Management System (LMS) from Wits on-premise data centre to the cloud.
“There were frequent outages on the locally-hosted Sakai environment at peak demand, hence the exploration of a reliable cloud solution to ensure the availability of our LMS for our students and lecturers,” he said.
‘Always-on’ availability that would cater to peaks and troughs of demand were the main justifiers for making the cloud journey, but security and compliance also had to remain front and centre.
Silicon Overdrive helped Wits to implement Sakai LMS using Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2), Amazon Relational Database Service (RDS) and Amazon Elastic File System (Amazon EFS) across Multiple Availability Zones (Multi-AZ). This meant the University achieved a highly available solution, ensuring that Wits’ students and staff have uninterrupted access to the Sakai LMS.
Amazon CloudFront (Content Delivery Network) is used to cache the Sakai application content to South African edge locations for the fast delivery of the content to students.
With students sent home to continue their studies, remote accessibility from anywhere in the country was an issue too, so the University was keen to introduce edge solutions and affordable connectivity.
The University also wanted to reduce the data costs for students accessing Sakai from home, so it approached the local Mobile Operators to zero-rate these data charges.
The Covid-19 pandemic overtook the world in a matter of weeks in March 2020, so turnaround time for this project was of paramount importance. The teams were able to launch the new environment and migrate from the on-prem environment to AWS in just over a month.
Keeping staff and students in touch
With learning content taken care of the University identified the necessity for staff and students to keep in touch during the nationwide lockdown.
With a need to adapt, and offer more online training, meetings, and interactions for its staff and students, Wits looked at how it could use BigBlueButton, a free software web conferencing system for GNU/Linux servers.
The platform was already deployed on the University’s on-premise environment, but had reached its end of life (EoL) so support would soon be unavailable. There was also a concern that an on-premise solution wouldn’t be able to scale to meet the increased demand driven by remote working.
Silicon Overdrive rehosted the existing BigBlueButton environment to a highly-scalable and secure Amazon Virtual Private Cloud (VPC).
The new VPC utilises services like Amazon EC2 to provide secure, resizable compute capacity. Amazon Simple Storage Solution (S3) buckets with encryption features and access management tools for secure, durable and scalable object storage, were also included to reduce storage costs associated with backups.
Amazon Elastic Block Store (EBS) volumes with encryption features were also added to provide secure, highly available, durable and scalable persistent block storage volumes for use with Amazon EC2 instances.
Amazon CloudWatch, providing monitoring, management and alerting, and AWS CloudTrail, a service for governance, compliance, operational auditing, and risk auditing of your AWS account, was deployed into the environment.
Partnering for success
The Silicon Overdrive team worked closely with the Wits and AWS Public Sector teams to architect and implement a secure, fault-tolerant and highly-available solution.
AWS further supported both projects by funding the migration, entering into a strategic engagement with the customer stakeholders and by granting Silicon Overdrive access to AWS technical resources to support the discussions and migration.
Dr Mpofu comments: “Our vision is to build an ICT department that is relevant and agile, managing issues with urgency with the aim of contributing to a University that is in a ‘digital state, competing with international standards’. The Covid-19 lockdown forced us to move swiftly in scaling our capacity to provide students with access to the Learning Management System.
AWS came at the right time for Wits University in that a perennial problem of the Learning Management System going down during critical times became a thing of the past,” he adds. “The professional set-up by AWS of guaranteed availability, security and scaling assured 24/7 access from anywhere – giving Wits the edge.”
“The architecture design was superior leading to mobile network operators (MNOs) agreeing to zero-rate it after conducting extensive tests to ensure that the design mitigated the issues that MNOs had previously had regarding cloud-hosted solutions.”
Mpofu adds that the experience was successful thanks to Silicon Overdrive’s skills and support. “They have an excellent understanding of the AWS architecture and platform. They also have good systems knowledge and executed our migration to the cloud with a clear project plan. Their project management skills and interpersonal skills were second to none.”