CAO Performance: 'Could Try Harder!'

Last week, the organisation that co-ordinates student placement into Irish universities (the CAO) experienced a major cock-up.

It seems it seriously underestimated how busy its website would be during the last week of college applications. As a result, many applicants were unable to access the site, causing significant anxiety and distress.

As website managers know, the most important aspects of website infrastructure performance are:
  • Availability. This means the percentage of time that the website is up and running.
  • Reliability. This means the number of unplanned outages that occur on the website.
  • Responsiveness. This means the efficacy with which the website responds to traffic.
To have a website that scores well on each of these, you need to build an infrastructure that is appropiate to the scale of the website that you operate. For example, a site that expects to attract significant traffic needs to have:
  • Many high specification servers
  • Lost of storage space and memory
  • Robust hosting software
  • A very fast link to the internet backbone
  • Good back-up and maintenance procedures
  • Etc.
The trouble is that some sites (like those of the CAO) experience huge spikes in traffic at particular times. How to cope with such non-linear demand?

Well, it is not easy but there are answers. 

Besides investing in a lot of hardware/software that will remain underused for long periods, the best approach is to rent spare capacity from other organisations, e.g. related government departments. Indeed, this type of capacity can now be bought online, for example at Amazon.com, who now offer surplus production power off its own servers.

Let's hope the CAO get's its act together for its next big test. 

That occurs in August this year when the first college offers are made. At that time tens-of-thousands of students will all try to log-on again to see how well they have fared in the great 'race for a place' in university.

(More about the basics of designing an appropriate Website Infrastructure are explored in my book, "The Website Manager's Handbook")

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