The University of New Hampshire (UNH), in Durham, is a land-grant institution and part of the University System of New Hampshire. The university has an enrollment of 14,000 graduate and undergraduate students and about 1,200 faculty members.
When UNH adopted the Blackboard Learning System, a family of Web-based applications for course management and collaboration, faculty members were slow to use the tool at first because it was a new approach. “Then the word got out and usage began to grow,” said Eileen Cooley, senior IT manager. “Today, 80 percent of courses are managed in Blackboard.”
The Blackboard Learning System provides a wide range of teaching functionality, including creating, building and managing courses and materials; delivering syllabi and grades; and administering exams. In addition, the solution provides students with collaboration tools for group work, and allows them to communicate electronically with faculty and other students, submit papers and take exams. The Blackboard solution is delivered via UNH’s Web portal.
As the popularity of Blackboard grew, Cooley and her team recognized that they needed a load-balancing solution to ensure high availability around the clock and support a growing user base. “Students are sometimes working at 3 a.m. and instructors are preparing for classes early in the morning, so consistent Web server availability is critical. Also, we wanted a solution that would provide integrated SSL connectivity and scripting.”
UNH’s existing load balancer, part of its Linux-based portal platform, did not meet these requirements. Therefore, Cooley conducted a side-by-side comparison of three products, including Citrix® NetScaler®, Platinum Edition.
“We ran the three solutions through their paces,” Cooley recalled. “One of the products had drawbacks in scalability, licensing and cost.” Another did not provide all the functionality that UNH needed. Based on its superior capabilities, including high availability, session persistence and scripting, as well as integrated SSL encryption, Citrix NetScaler came out on top. Specifically, because UNH required much more intensive test scripting capabilities than would normally be possible on a proprietary appliance, NetScaler was selected for its ability to allow external scripting on “helper” servers to access it via Secure Shell (SSH) commands. Other manufacturers either had no external command line access, or used unsecured and/or non-scriptable methods of access such as Telnet or Remote Shell (RSH).
The university implemented a pair of NetScaler appliances. “We felt NetScaler was the most robust solution and liked the fact that Citrix is a well-established vendor and well known in the marketplace.” She added, “One important differentiator of NetScaler was the easy-to-use tool for creating application delivery policies. It helped make the rollout incredibly smooth.”
The NetScaler appliances load-balance 20 Web servers running Blackboard Learning System as well as other applications, such as Internet Native Banner for Web delivery of forms and Kronos for timekeeping.
Even with a steady increase of 15 to 20 percent in daily connections to Blackboard and other applications each semester, the Citrix NetScaler solution easily handles the load. “We maintain high availability at any time of the day or night, even with the large number of transactions on the Blackboard applications,” Cooley said. “The fact that we can keep raising the number of transactions and connections and our environment is still OK is probably the most important NetScaler benefit for us. And even when a server occasionally goes down, the NetScaler appliances do their job in making sure nobody hits that failed piece of the environment.”
Citrix NetScaler also easily handles the addition of more applications to the Blackboard solution, such as a parent portal. Currently, UNH has a dozen Blackboard modules. “We are confident that the scalability and power of the NetScaler hardware will prevent overtaxing the environment, even with the addition of many more applications,” Cooley stated.
With confidential information such as grades delivered via the Blackboard Learning System, it is important for UNH to encrypt user connections to the portal. “With SSL security as part of our load-balancing solution, it was much easier for us to implement than a separate solution,” said Cooley.
“NetScaler has delivered what it promised to deliver,” she concluded. “The features worked the way they were described. This is very important to me because we’ve had situations where hardware did not perform as we expected. NetScaler provided everything we looked for and in some cases, more.”
UNH is planning to begin using other NetScaler functionality, such as the integrated Application Firewall to protect against known and unknown application-layer attacks. The university is also considering using Layer 7 content switching capability for a new content management application.
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