Student services provider re-architects, jumps to Microsoft's cloud

Student Edge scraps legacy systems, shifts to Windows Azure

Student Edge, a student card provider that offers information and access to discounts for secondary and tertiary students, has completed a complete re-architecture of its dated core systems that run its online portal. In the process, the company made the leap from its own hardware to running in Windows Azure.

The company offers financial management, education, career and life advice and services for students as well as access to discounted services and products from partners. Some 700,000 Student Edge cards have been issued by the 10-year-old organisation, according managing director Mike Schwartz.

Schwartz is predicting growth that will push that to over a million "quite soon".

This growth and the increasing complexity of managing large amounts of transactional and behavioural data for Student Edge members were pushing the company's previous systems, which ran on the company's own servers housed in a Perth data centre, to their limit.

"There were clear signs we were on borrowed time," Schwartz said.

"Our architecture was a bunch of servers housed down the road in a perfectly secure data centre where we owned the servers and we bought more when it got too slow. Basically the polar opposite of what we've got now – and we have polar opposite performance and confidence as well."

Both the architecture – a "cobbled together range of disparate technologies", including a number of bespoke systems – and the hosting environment needed an overhaul.

Student Edge's online presence was experiencing spikey traffic depending on the competitions the company was running and what discounts were made available to its members.

"We were starting to see quite rampant variances in engagement and traffic according to the services we would roll out," Schwartz said. "If we'd roll out really attractive new offers or prizes or whatever else it would go from 40 concurrent log-ons to 32,000. We'd watch the dial going, 'Wow that's good – I think.'"

It was a "good problem to have," Schwartz added.

If there were problems, the complexity of the code base mean fixing them was "messy". "So you think well it's time to stop maintaining," he said.

That overhaul began in October last year, and was mostly completed by the end of last month. Schwartz said that 80 per cent of the migration to the new platform and to Windows Azure was completed by the end of April, with the aid of software development shop Readify.

The choice of Microsoft's cloud was a natural one from Schwartz's perspective: "There were only a couple of really robust viable alternatives, and Microsoft SQL was likely to be the database, .NET was going to be the framework. So it fits together."

"It was almost a 'tell me why not' rather than 'tell me why'," the MD said.

Moving to Azure has given Student Edge the ability to scale up to meet traffic peaks. The company has also noticed a drop in latency despite hosting the new system in Microsoft's Singapore Azure region.

The new architecture also means that the business will be able to more effectively take advantage of common services, using much of the same software stack to engage users across multiple channels.

With some assistance from Readify, Student Edge has also begun using Scrum, which is a natural fit with the new setup Schwartz said: "The architecture and the software really fit well with that sort of development methodology, so everyone's just happier. More confident, happier, proud of what they've built, feeling pretty good about themselves. Rolling out things more quickly."

Many development jobs are being completed in close to half the estimated time now, he added.

From the perspective of the business, the transition has been straightforward. When it comes to adjusting from capex to opex, Schwartz said for a business like Student Edge it just meant "there are less lines on the spreadsheet and the numbers are smaller. It's great.

"There's a few lines for Azure and hosting and a few consultants here and there's a couple of credit card lines for a few cheap Atlassian bits that seem to cost peanuts. And that's about it really a lot of the time."

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