Pearson balances data centre growth

Education services company Pearson Assessments and Testing (PA&T) is ramping up its back end IT infrastructure to meet demand for its services from education departments all over Australia. Among other offerings, the group uses its Melbourne data centre to provide Web-based exam marking services, allowing teachers in any location to mark student exam papers from their home PC.

Education services company Pearson Assessments and Testing (PA&T) is ramping up its back end IT infrastructure to meet demand for its services from education departments all over Australia.

Among other offerings, the group uses its Melbourne data centre to provide Web-based exam marking services, allowing teachers in any location to mark student exam papers from their home PC.

In a recent interview with ZDNet Australia, P&T's Asia-Pacific IT infrastructure manager Jean-Manuel Becker said his group had recently completed several upgrades to support key business wins.

"This year we got redundant Internet access with a different Internet service provider, we got a clustered firewall, we got a clustered BIG-IP [load balancing solution], we got a clustered database," he said.

"When you deal with departments of education, and there are teachers on the other side, in Perth or in different locations, these teachers are paid per hour, so if our system goes down for 15 or 20 minutes, it's a very big problem for us."

"So we need to offer 100 percent uptime."

Balancing the load
The BIG-IP system from F5 Networks brought in at the beginning of this year has proved particularly useful. PA&T was previously using Microsoft's free load balancing system to manage its Microsoft-based Web server fleet.

"Up to 2003, 2004 we were running just Web servers, then in 2004 we implemented Microsoft load balancing," Becker said.

But as time went on, Becker found his group needed a more scalable system to handle its business growth. The Microsoft solution was "not very configurable", according to the IT infrastructure manager.

"Microsoft is OK, but it's really very basic load balancing, where BIG-IP is really I believe the best on the market. Microsoft is probably OK for a farm with two servers," he said.

PA&T chose BIG-IP due to F5's existing relationship with the education services group's UK sister company, which helps mark more than 25 million exam questions each year.

PA&T bought the F5 hardware from Dell, which won out on a price basis over several other resellers. PA&T also has a wider international relationship with Dell which allows for rebates on certain products.

A technician from F5 itself provided one day of free on site training to PA&T's IT team.

"It was a good experience with them," said Becker. "We have been running the F5 solution probably since the beginning of the year, and we have been running already three large projects."

The BIG-IP system is designed to handle a load of up to 5,000 exam markers continuously. Becker also praised the SSL encryption features of the hardware.

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