How Arizona State University is launching 2,000+ branded, turnkey sites--without self-hosting

How Arizona State University is launching 2,000+ branded, turnkey sites--without self-hosting

In this guest post, the central IT web development and hosting team at Arizona State University shares how they’re transitioning 2,000+ sites from self-hosting to Pantheon One. From the University Technology Office (UTO), Daniel Garcia-Mont, ‎Web Application Developer Lead; Ron Page, Sr Director, Applications & Design; and Ryan Clemens, Director, Web Applications share their story. 

SITUATION: 2,000+ SITES, HOSTED & SUPPORTED BY ASU

Everyone here at the University Technology Office is a Drupal advocate. Of more than 2,000 departmental, faculty, and personal sites hosted for free by the UTO, approximately half (1,100) are Drupal installations. It’s always been easy for ASU employees to request a new site. In the beginning, even students could get them. Quite a few of these sites now sit abandoned.  

THE CHALLENGES OF HOSTING ON OUR OWN ENVIRONMENT

1. NOT SCALABLE. With dozens of virtual machines, each hosting 80 to 100 sites, the system was never meant to handle high-traffic situations. A few years ago, President Obama came to our commencement. As soon as he started speaking, the ASU news site crashed. So did every other site on that host. After that, we built a dedicated rig for the high-traffic library and the news site. The web hosting service still took 2-3 full-time employees to maintain.

2. SECURITY ISSUES. Sites weren’t being kept up to date, so there were lots of vulnerabilities. Drupal was too complex for a non-developer to maintain. People would switch over to WordPress and their sites would get hacked.

3. SUPPORT DEMAND > SUPPLY. It was in our best interests to get out of the hosting business. Each department is responsible for maintaining their sites, fixing vulnerabilities, and paying for development. But in real life, people call central IT when they need help. We help when we can, but we are not staffed to give people the kind of service they ask for.

CHOOSING A FOCUS: DRUPAL.

So many customers, so many needs. We got caught up in analysis paralysis at first, as we tried to find a hosting solution for all the different technologies of web sites.

In a moment of clarity, we decided to start with Drupal. After all, UTO had already standardized on Drupal as a development/CMS platform. We reasoned that finding a great solution for our Drupal customers would be the best starting point for meeting others’ needs, too. This helped us focus our requirements and limit the scope.

EVALUATING THE OPTIONS FOR A DRUPAL HOSTING SOLUTION

In evaluating our options, a few factors were most important to us. They turned out to be the reasons why we chose Pantheon:

1. A TURNKEY SOLUTION. A lot of our requirements come from Drupal newbies. We needed to make it easy for them to get started.  Pantheon provided a customized Drupal start state, called Open ASU, that makes it easy for non-developers to build Drupal sites.

2. EASY TO MAINTAIN. The original goal of providing web hosting for the university was to get people to stop hosting their own servers under their desks or in utility closets. With centralization we succeeded in keeping the O/S up to date, but we found that many of our customers did not keep Drupal up to date.  Pantheon makes it easy for customers to keep their Drupal sites patched and secure.

3. SINGLE SIGN ON, OUT OF THE BOX. Pantheon was the only solution that could provide basic-level sites that came with integrated SSL and SSO out of the box, without relying on third-party modules.  

4. A COST-EFFECTIVE WAY FOR US TO RAMP UP. We still needed to transition all 1,100 sites away from self-hosting, so we needed a cost-effective way to ramp up. Pantheon gave us a path. We could start slow, without paying large amounts up front.  That was a big help.

THE SOLUTION: ASU-BRANDED SITES OUT OF THE BOX.

Open ASU gives you a responsive, ASU-branded site out of the box. We’ve been calling it the WordPress killer. Now an entry-level person can flip through a couple options and spin up a turnkey website. They don’t need extra funds or technical knowledge.

Keeping sites up to date is easy, too. Before, you’d need to be a Drupal developer. Now, we maintain the distribution. You just make one click through the Pantheon dashboard and you’re up to date.

PUTTING PANTHEON ONE TO THE TEST: A REAL-LIFE FIRE DRILL.

Last Friday, our housing site came under so much traffic that our environment couldn’t handle it. We decided to switch that site over to Pantheon. It took about 15 minutes. Since this was an older site, there was some additional work to get the branding working and looking the way it needed to.  

Pantheon’s dev-test-live workflow really helped us out. We also liked the one-click ability to move up and down between plan levels so we could meet the temporary traffic spikes that happen once a semester. Plus, the New Relic add-on is now giving us info about the site’s performance that we didn’t have before.

ANY CHALLENGES WITH IMPLEMENTATION?

Moving to Pantheon is a bit of a double-edged sword, because it forces developers to work in a more enterprise environment. New things can be scary to novice developers. But in the long run, it will be good to start enforcing these workflows throughout the University.

Some novices were used to going in and manually making live changes to a production server via an FTP client like Dreamweaver. They were set in their workflows and didn’t want to learn a new one. But once they started using Pantheon’s tools, most of them came around.

With Pantheon, you have a dev, test, live environment, and all the tools that come with it. The real Drupal developers on campus saw that as awesome. With one click, they could set up all these environments.  

SURPRISE--RESPONSIVE SERVICE.

Pantheon is a young company. Initially, we feared they might not be quite ready for production. While a few small things have come up, Pantheon’s commitment to the customer and to making things right has really stood out. They’re pretty hands-on when working to meet our needs. We weren’t given a cookie-cutter solution.  

PANTHEON ONE DOES THE WORK OF 2-3 FULL-TIME EMPLOYEES.

We’re still working to deliver the final distribution on time. But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. When we’re finished, we expect to free up the equivalent of 2-3 full-time employees. The UTO management is pretty excited to outsource a service that was never core. Now we can use more full-time employees for things that are.

The more sites we can get on Pantheon, the less work we have to do on our current hosting service. It’s worth the effort.

Rather than helping people keep their sites running, we’ll be able to concentrate on helping them make effective websites.

WELL-RECEIVED BY OUR OWN DRUPAL COMMUNITY.

Our developers are universally excited. People actually came up and told us what a great decision we’d made. No one ever says that!

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