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Higher education SaaS provider relies on F5 Big-IP for app delivery

Hobsons uses F5 Big-IP application delivery controllers to accelerate apps to users for reliable Web experiences.

When 60,000 prospective students go online simultaneously to find out if they were accepted into college on the same day, the application delivery controller behind the network infrastructure has to be as robust as it is reliable.

Hobsons -- a provider of Software as a Service (SaaS) applications for colleges and universities -- has selected several F5 Big IP products to support its global infrastructure, including the Local Traffic Manager (LTM), Global Traffic Manager (GTM) and WebAccelerator, for just such an occasion.

The Big-IP 3600 application delivery controllers allow Hobsons to offer Web-based course and career planning, recruiting, enrollment and student retention tools for countless students and higher education organizations throughout the country, said Patrick McFadin, chief architect and director of systems and architecture at Hobsons. There are two Big-IP 3600s in each of Hobson’s three data centers, two of which are located in the U.S. and one in the U.K.

“All our application delivery controllers are strictly F5,” he said. “For [Hobsons], performance is key because we are involved in such a milestone in a person’s life -- getting into college. We selected F5 [Big-IP] for our architecture because the products integrate so well.”

F5 Big-IP integrates local and global data

The integration of the F5 Big-IP LTM and GTM allows Hobsons to seamlessly serve students who need to fill out online applications for their selected schools during the application period. If a student in Washington, D.C., fills out an application for a school in California, Hobsons automatically sends the student to the local data center in Northern Virginia via an F5 Big-IP LTM, explained McFadin. Then the F5 Big-IP GTM pipes the dynamic information through a private VPN to a data center in Santa Clara, Calif. Hobsons engineers enable this process using F5’s event-driven scripting language, iRules.

“The whole experience for the student is this really snappy, near-term experience,” Mcfadin said. “[The student] only has a three to four millisecond hop from the local data center to the main data center, while we get to control the flow of data.”

These application delivery controllers also ensure that connections are maintained throughout the school application process for the student, Mcfadin noted. “If a student is filling out a long application and the connection dies midway through, they aren’t going to be very happy,” he said.

Most of the college applicants within the U.S. go through Hobson’s online college application products, and the provider serves up the college’s admission decisions online every spring. The provider is faced with heavy demands to the network during decision time, and again when students begin to apply online for college during the fall.

As a result, “we have very interesting problems we have to deal with,” McFadin said. “This year, both Cornell University and Columbia University will be releasing admission decisions at 5:00 p.m. EST on March 29. We will have 60,000 students clicking at the same exact time to find out if they got into the schools,” he said. “We really take this seriously and we have to make sure these connections are going to work.”

F5 Big-IP offers integration, controls data flow

Hobsons has gone through several application delivery controllers and load balancers in the past, including network product offerings from Nortel and Citrix.  But the products did not provide Hobsons with the performance or integration the provider required.

“We tried various products from several companies and really ran the gamut of these network products, but we settled on F5 because it just worked so well and a lot of its products were pretty core to how we run our business,” McFadin said.

For Hobsons, the integration layer is mission-critical. Without F5’s iRules, Mcfadin said the provider would not be able to meet the needs of its customers. “We really rely on iRules quite a bit,” he said, noting that Hobsons has many rules in place that are built into the application delivery controller. “Every time we acquire a new company, it’s a new application stack that has to integrate well. Either we have to do a lot of development under the covers, or a lot of times we can fake it out really good with iRules by making things that aren’t the same look the same.”

The LTM and GTM work hand-in-hand with each other, an important feature for Hobsons in directing traffic to different data centers. “Controlling the flow of data was something we weren’t getting from our Citrix Netscaler box,” said McFadin. While the Citrix product did offer scripting, the rules slowed down the service, he noted. “That’s why we moved away from this solution. Now, our infrastructure is basically coded out in our iRules.”

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Application delivery controllers relieve infrastructure growing pains

Finding the right sizing was a big lesson learned for Hobsons -- currently in the process of purchasing a new set of equipment from F5. “We are expanding and getting larger boxes now,” McFadin said. “We have just acquired a new company and will be pulling them into our data center, along with upgrading what we have now to the larger setup.”

The F5 Big-IP product suite has transformed Hobson’s approach to infrastructure operations, noted McFadin. From an operations standpoint, there is an element of code in the infrastructure now that provides a synergy between the development team and network operators, he said.

“The traditional role of network operations was to plug in the application delivery device, make sure it’s on and walk away, but not anymore,” McFadin said. “When the application is being built or fixed, there is some thought put into how that infrastructure is assembled, how the iRules are working, and how the local traffic management is configured. Now, our development team works with the operations team on a routine basis.”

Moving forward, McFadin is anxious to see the latest version of WebAccelerator, noting that Hobsons expects that F5 will provide in-line image optimization and HTTP streaming reports. “As Hobsons grows, we are trying to get things faster into the browser without thinking about it,” he said. “We want our application delivery controller to handle that.”

 Let us know what you think about the story; email: Gina Narcisi, News Writer

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