Today is A-level results day. For thousands of teenagers across the country, it is a culmination of years of schooling, and a nail-biting wait to see if they get the grades needed for their place at university.
According to UCAS, the organisation that manages applications to higher education courses, “209,000 applicants are expected to compete for just over 46,000 places. Over 150,000 applicants will lose out altogether.”
The UCAS website provides an application tracking service that shows students whether they have got their place at university. Today is the most important day for the website all year.
The UCAS track service was taken offline to “secure a full service” shortly before 9am this morning. Prior to this it had suffered extreme service disruptions.
Apparently, the website has received four times the peak traffic per second compared to last year. The main reason for this increased volume is the unprecedented number of university applications as students fight to avoid the large increase in tuition fees from 2012.
The problem for UCAS is that the traffic spike should not have been a surprise. Applications for places were completed earlier in the year and figures of how many people had applied were known well in advance of today. That, combined with this being the last year to get lower tuition fees, all means that being hit with the highest levels of traffic ever should have been expected.
The general opinion on social networks and news sites is that their lack of preparation is not acceptable
UCAS is not the first site to badly anticipate demand. The Government’s e-petition site has crashed multiple times since its launch at the beginning of the month because of visitor volume. The London Olympics ticket site struggled under the numbers of people applying in the last few hours before the deadline, and again when the second chance ticket sale was opened (an event that would clearly generate high visitor numbers given the amount of press on how many people had missed out on tickets in the first round).
Today, more than ever, people expect sites to be available when they need them. With the introduction of broadband and subsequent speed improvements, people are far less used to a site loading slowly or failing to load at all. Therefore when one does fail, people shout much more loudly about it than they used to. The higher the profile of the site, the louder and more prolific the shouting
One off, extreme traffic spikes are difficult for companies to manage; it can cost a lot of money to put in the additional resources required to cope with the demand.
For us – a company that hosts large, mission critical sites – we often get asked for advice on how a site can manage a temporary, extreme spike in traffic without blowing the budget. Cloud hosting is one resource that many clients are requesting as it is designed to cater for changing demands on resources. When a spike occurs, more virtual instances can be brought in to help cope with the demand. The limit of this depends on how much spare capacity the cloud host allows.
We have also developed a web acceleration product – Webcelerator – that sits in front of a cloud or dedicated server solution that actually reduces the server load, therefore enabling them to handle far more traffic.
The fact is though, if a company does not anticipate the increased volumes of traffic, there is very little that can be done fast enough to prevent downtime.
UCAS should have been better prepared for the traffic volumes – it is the most important day of the year for them and they stumbled at the first hurdle.