Gaining a university or higher education place is one of the most exuberant moments in life. To make it all happen in the UK, UCAS processes over 3 million applications from some 765,000 prospective students applying to more than 400 universities and colleges.
In support of its application systems, UCAS provides essential information for students through its website, offering comprehensive advice and guidance on courses, institutions, careers and finance. Additionally, the site acts as a portal to the admissions process, and carries paid-for advertising, handled by UCAS Media, which is responsible for 40% of revenues.
Originally, UCAS managed its web operations in-house, with a self-developed content management system. UCAS hosted its own web server on-premises, and carried out system and site maintenance.
Graham Bond, Digital Media Manager, explains, “Applicant numbers have risen steadily, from around 700,000 in 2012 to more than 750,000 every year, and web traffic continues to grow. We realized that we did not have the capacity to handle the workload, and our content management system was falling behind best-practice.”
Andy Irving, Head of Technology Transition, adds, “To add to the anguish, at the peak times during the examination results season in August, we were experiencing web stability issues. Right at the moment applicants most wanted information, sheer volume caused degradation across web services.”
UCAS looked for a long-term strategy that would resolve the web stability questions and reduce site management workload. The aim was to ensure continuity of service and guarantee ease of access for external users and clients.
At the same time, UCAS was in the midst of a company-wide digital transformation programme, moving core services and software to the cloud for reasons of cost and business flexibility. Based on that cloud strategy, the team planned to migrate from the on-premises web server and in-house content management.
UCAS selected Drupal content management, which offered the closest fit in terms of functionality, robust enterprise capabilities and – most importantly – scalability. With limited in-house resources and little experience of Drupal, UCAS looked for an implementation partner to manage the transition successfully. This would include the web migration, content management configuration, and cloud service management.
Underlying the partner selection process, UCAS also looked for a transition process that offered minimal disruption, to preserve continuity of service for its paying web advertisers.
To help steer the journey to the cloud and deliver ongoing management and support for the new Drupal deployment, UCAS selected Acquia Cloud Platform – a fully managed, high-availability, hosting platform built for the most demanding Drupal applications.
Graham Bond remarks, “The advantage of Acquia Cloud Platform is that it takes care of the technical infrastructure, such as patching and upgrades, and ensures that Drupal works in the most efficient way. As part of the service, Acquia also manages our cloud platform, ensuring that we gain the benefits of stability and scalability even during the August peak.
“Onboarding was very smooth – so smooth that we felt almost as if we hadn’t gone through one – with a great deal of engagement with UCAS, creating a single team of like-minded people. For the initial deployment, Acquia assigned resources on-site, and the cutover was very straightforward. The services from Acquia have taken away a great deal of pain, and ensure that we can focus our development efforts on the value-add tasks that really make a difference to UCAS.”
With Acquia Cloud Platform, UCAS has significantly reduced its in-house administration and maintenance workload, freeing its employees to work on value-added services that support its student and institutional communities. The improvement in web stability, with no unplanned outages since the Drupal and cloud deployment, helps UCAS optimize its significant commercial advertising revenues, too.
The UCAS.com site experiences some 110 million hits, with spikes around key application and confirmation dates in January and August. In 2018, applicant feedback showed 92% satisfaction, and advisers at schools and colleges report overall satisfaction of 95% with UCAS services.
Andy Irving comments, “UCAS has adopted a buy-not-build strategy, which leads naturally to cloud and managed services. Acquia absolutely works in that space, and is a fantastic fit for UCAS. We want to retain the analytics and business intelligence aspects, and allow Acquia to manage the web, Drupal and related software- and platform-as-a-service components.
“In the four years since adopting the Acquia Cloud Platform, we have experienced far more web traffic than we predicted, and Acquia has accommodated that rise easily and efficiently.
“Acquia has proved to be an exceptionally strong partner for UCAS, helping us develop new ideas, and providing excellent technical support. If we have a problem, they get it fixed, with very fast response times to support tickets, even in the wee small hours."
Ultimately, UCAS aims to serve its students, their schools, universities and their commercial clients with an integrated service that enables educational and career opportunities. UCAS and Acquia are committed to supporting the human stories written in millions of applications, and helping applicants find the right path.
Graham Bond concludes, “Students know that when they visit the UCAS site – particularly at the stressful moment of discovering whether they have been offered a place – we have the information always available and accessible, whatever they are looking for. And for schools, universities and advertisers, Acquia helps ensure that UCAS delivers the reliable services required to meet their growing needs.”