Clearing through the clouds

Last Thursday, students found out their A Level results that would, for many, determine if and where they were going to university. For those who didn’t quite make their grades, the first port of call is UCAS – the University and College Admissions Service – to go through the clearing process, i.e. find a university with places available that will accept their grades.

The UCAS web site crashed.

Everyone knew this year would be busier than normal due to next year’s rise in tuition fees. As well as the normal intake there were going to be those who chose to delay a gap year and those who managed to take their A Levels early, all to avoid starting next year and facing a hike in fees (potentially an extra £17,000 for a 3-year degree).  Yet UCAS decided to just double their capacity.

From The Times on Friday 19th September:

The organisation said that it was taken by surprise by the numbers attempting to log in. At one point, there were 450 hits per second – four times as many as last year.

Ms Curnock Cook [Head of UCAS] said that despite doubling its staff and website capacity the service was on the brink of being unable to cope with demand.

“I don’t think anyone anticipated [such high demand]. We were not ready for a quadrupling of our capacity…”

Was there ever a better example of why public sector web-sites should be running on a cloud computing platform?  Where resources can be scaled up and down to meet occasional peaks in demand.  It happens to HMRC each January 31st as people rush to get their tax returns filed online in time.  Schools web sites struggle each year when they allocate school places.  I’d guess the NHS has its share of demand during seasonal festivities. Each peak occuring at a different time of year, all could benefit from a shared ‘on demand’ platform.

And it’s not just been a bad week for public sector web sites.  HP made a rather massive announcement on Thursday, breaking news that they are pulling out of the consumer hardware business just weeks (and in some cases days) after launching their new tablet device. The new focus being on infrstracture, software and services.  By Saturday, rumours began to spread across the Internet of a ‘fire sale’ dropping prices from $399 to $99 to get rid of the stock.  And the HP web site crashed under the demand. As Larry Dignan pointed out, you’d think an infrastructure specialist would know better…

Some of the cloud computing vendors are doing nothing but talk about cloud. Cloud this, cloud that, cloud everywhere.  There’s a long road to travel before cloud computing becomes pervasive, just as mainframes didn’t disappear overnight when the PC arrived in the workplace.  But some scenarios would benefit more from cloud computing than continuing with traditional methods, in the same way some uses of mainframes dropped rapidly as PCs offered new cheaper and more flexible ways of working with information.  If you’re in a business that can suffer seasonal peaks in demand on your web site and it matters, think about how that site is hosted.


  • Universities slam door on 90,000 applicants as competition intensifies – Joanne Sugden and Greg Hirst, The Times (iPad edition)
  • HP’s TouchPad Fire Sale: The Fallout – Larry Dignan, ZDNet

Related blog posts

Further reading in the notebook under Cloud Computing (about), Cloud Services (providers) and Cloud Cases (examples).

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