Operating out of the capitol campus in Olympia, Washington, and employing a staff of approximately 6,000, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) is responsible for ensuring that people and goods are able to move freely and safely throughout the state. As such, it maintains a public-facing website that provides travelers with information on road conditions, road work, and more. It also serves as a means for reserving space on the state’s all-important ferry system.
WSDOT’s public-facing website provides a lifeline for travelers. On an average day, the site gets approximately 75,000 visitors. However, on those rare days when it snows in Seattle, that number can spike to close to a million—placing an enormous load on the department’s expansive web server infrastructure. By 2008, the older Cisco load balancing equipment deployed by the agency—which worked fine on a normal day, were simply unable to keep pace with the exceedingly high site traffic. “When there’s snow in or around Seattle, people freak out, and our site gets absolutely inundated,” says Aaron Hutchinson, web master for WSDOT’s infrastructure server support team. “The Cisco solution would try to keep up, but at times it would just stop responding—in effect shutting itself down.” And when this happened, the department’s mission of making travel information easily accessible to the public would essentially shut down as well.
When Hutchinson and team began investigating solutions that would enable the website to scale to meet these huge spikes in demand, they looked at products from both Cisco and F5 in addition to Citrix, but neither of the other companies’ solutions could offer the capacity, breadth of features and simplified licensing delivered by NetScaler.
“While load balancing was our primary need, NetScaler offered so much more,” says Hutchinson. “With the other solutions, you had to add separate modules—at extra cost—to gain additional functionality. With NetScaler Platinum Edition, in contrast, everything is built in and turned on from the get-go.” This includes load balancing, NetScaler Gateway to securely access its XenApp and XenDesktop environments, NetScaler AppFirewall to secure online transactions for ferry vehicle reservations, and much more.
“After deploying NetScaler, we immediately saw a huge increase in capacity” says Hutchinson. “In the past I had to watch our Cisco device very closely—turning off some of our ASPX pages and routing visitors to basic HTML pages when traffic got too heavy. Now, with NetScaler, it’s not even a concern. We have so much capacity that now our Internet connection has suddenly become the bottleneck.”
Luckily for WSDOT, Hutchinson was able to address that with NetScaler as well. “When we turned on compression in NetScaler, we immediately achieved 40 percent savings in bandwidth—which meant we were able to handle a huge number of additional site visitors without filling up that bottleneck.”
And this was only the beginning. “NetScaler has grown to become an integrated and hugely vital part of our operations,” Hutchinson says. “I can’t think of anything that doesn’t run through it—including not only our public-facing website, but all of our intranet and Internet pages, our PCI environment, Microsoft Lync, Microsoft SharePoint, and external access to our 8,000 Microsoft Exchange mailboxes, plus ActiveSync for mobile devices.
For Hutchinson and team, by far the biggest benefit of deploying NetScaler has been the reduction in downtime of its public website. “Our public website just doesn’t go down anymore—it’s as simple as that,” says Hutchinson. “With the traveling public quick to communicate their anger when something doesn’t work, the net effect of the improved availability has been felt by everyone from our constituents to our communications office and our server infrastructure team. In short, everyone’s experience has improved.”
With no direct upgrade path from SharePoint 2007 to SharePoint 2013, NetScaler helped make what could have been an extremely cumbersome migration seamless to WSDOT users. By enabling targeted content switching policies, NetScaler was able to intelligently route users between each SharePoint version simultaneously, allowing the organization to upgrade one collection at a time, make sure it was all functional, remove the rules, and then point everything back to the original. “This meant that our users didn’t see any difference or have to change any bookmarks,” says Hutchinson. “Being able to do this without forcing the user to take any extra steps was huge, since trying to communicate that change, and telling users, ‘You now need to go to this site, but then it’s going to change back,’ gets very confusing for people who aren’t tech-savvy.”
WSDOT used NetScaler to support a brand-new revenue stream for the department. When the state legislature mandated that the Department of Transportation begin advertising on its public-facing website, having to support a separate domain infrastructure and resources would become very time consuming. Since the department wasn’t permitted to place advertisements on the .gov domain, WSDOT purchased a dot.com domain explicitly for this purpose. NetScaler provided simple response and redirect actions that allow inbound traffic to be seamlessly redirected to the dot.com site where advertisers’ content can be freely published. Advertising revenue on the department’s site consequently introduced new ways to generate funds for the department. Best of all, says Hutchinson, “Once we set up the dot.com domain and redirects, there was no more maintenance on our part to manage a separate domain. It’s just up and running, and I don’t really do anything.”
For Hutchinson and colleagues, the experience of working with Citrix NetScaler and the Citrix team has been nothing but positive. “I can’t say enough good things about both the sales and engineering teams at Citrix,” he says. “We’ve never had an issue that they couldn’t figure out, and we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of NetScaler’s capabilities. We plan to use it well into the future, and when it comes time to upgrade, we’ll be the first in line.”
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