Real World Windows Azure: Interview with Florin Anton, Advanced eLearning Department Manager at SIVECO Romania

As part of the Real World Windows Azure series, I spoke with Florin Anton, Advanced eLearning Department Manager at SIVECO Romania about how they tapped Windows Azure and SQL Azure to run the Romanian Ministry of Education’s exams website. Read the customer success story. Here’s what he had to say:

Himanshu Kumar Singh: What is SIVECO?

Florin Anton: SIVECO Romania is a Bucharest-based software vendor and integrator, active in Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, the Commonwealth of Independent States, and North Africa. We’re also a member of the Microsoft Partner Network.

HKS: Tell me about the exams website you created.

FA: We’re a longtime technology partner to the Romanian Ministry of Education.  Every year, approximately 200,000 Romanian eighth-graders submit their high school choices and automatic distribution is made based on student preferences and school capacities. To make it easier for students to check for their high school assignments, we developed a high school admission application, ADLIC, and the distribution results are posted on the ADLIC website each July.

HKS: How well did the website meet demand from students and parents? 

FA: Every July, when up to 200,000 students and their parents rushed to the site to check the high school they will go to, the site had difficulty responding. Anxious candidates had to revisit the site repeatedly, in order to see their results. The ministry did not have sufficient hardware infrastructure to properly support peak traffic loads.  It’s extremely important to the ministry that this site functions properly and stays available during the distribution results publishing period; it is the fastest way of transmitting the results to waiting students and is proof of ministry’s capacity to completely automate the distribution process.

HKS:  Were there also technical issues you faced?

FA: Yes, the ministry had experienced denial-of-service and other malicious attacks on the site, which meant that our staff had to monitor the servers around the clock to safeguard them. Adding to the server workload, the exam results site used static webpages, which required significant compute power and implied a time-consuming deployment process. 

HKS:  What was the solution?

FA:  We wanted to convert the ADLIC website to use dynamic webpages, but a dynamic architecture would require more powerful and expensive servers, for which the ministry had no budget. Even using static pages, the ministry had to pay for fairly powerful servers used just one or two months a year.

HKS:  When did you find out about Windows Azure?

FA: We learned about Windows Azure in October 2010 and immediately saw it as a way to solve the ADLIC website challenges.  With the Ministry of Education’s approval, we moved the ADLIC website to Windows Azure for its cloud compute resources, using SQL Azure as the cloud database service. This was scheduled for the busy summer months only, and the website would run in the ministry’s data center the rest of the year. 

HKS: How did Windows Azure help address your technical issues?

FA: With the virtually unlimited compute power made available by using Windows Azure, we were able to upgrade the site from a static to a dynamic architecture. This enabled the ministry to offer new capabilities, such as a better search interface and richer data presentation, leading to a better user experience. Student test scores are still maintained in an on-premises database running SQL Server. But the web servers run in Windows Azure, and public data sets for the website are delivered through SQL Azure. 

HKS:  How did the website perform after the move to Windows Azure?

FA: In July 2011, the first year that the ministry delivered the high school distribution results using Windows Azure, we deployed 10 Windows Azure instances, with a total of 80 processor cores, and loaded about 400 megabytes of data into SQL Azure. We adjust Windows Azure resources as needed and pay only for the resources that we use.

By moving the ADLIC public website to Windows Azure during peak traffic periods, we’re able to give the Ministry of Education the performance and availability it needs, when needed, at a very attractive cost.

HKS:  What are some of the other benefits you’ve experienced?

FA: By using Windows Azure, we can quickly scale up the ADLIC web infrastructure when necessary without paying all year for expensive unused infrastructure. With this critical web application running on Windows Azure, students can get their distribution results immediately without the anxiety of waiting for hours or days on a slow website. They also enjoy improved functionality because of the site’s ability to offer dynamic webpages. To create a comparable infrastructure on premises, I estimate that the ministry would have had to spend US$100,000 on servers, software, communications and management resources.

Its also worth noting that, during the first summer that the ADLIC website was run on Windows Azure, the ministry experienced zero downtime for the first time. Every year previously, we’ve had downtime to contend with, so this was a huge improvement. For the first time in years, our staff enjoyed a good night’s sleep every night. This peace of mind came from not having to watch ADLIC servers around the clock for a month to defend against denial-of-service attacks. This also reduced our costs by approximately $10,000.

HKS:  What’s next for SIVECO and Windows Azure?

FA:  We’re eager to present the possibilities of Windows Azure to more customers. By using Windows Azure, we have the ability to create more flexible solutions for our customers. With it, we can now serve customers that we could not serve before because they could not justify expensive on-premises IT models.

Read how others are using Windows Azure.