Charity uses cloud to stop Stephen Fry crashing its website

One of the UK’s largest charities, Action for Children, has selected Rackspace to create a hybrid-cloud environment to help with spikes in demand on its front-end applications and to reduce complexity with future website migrations.


One of the UK’s largest charities, Action for Children, has selected Rackspace to create a hybrid-cloud environment to help with spikes in demand on its front-end applications and to reduce complexity with future website migrations.

Computerworld UK spoke to Darren Robertson, data scientist at Action for Children (AfC), who explained how the charity has created an environment whereby it keeps extremely sensitive child data on dedicated hardware on-premise, but has placed less sensitive databases in a private cloud environment in Rackspace’s datacentres, and then uses Rackspace’s public cloud offering for its public-facing website.

The private cloud environment hosts AfC’s transactional application data and information on projects that it hosts across the UK. Robertson estimates that the amount of super sensitive data that is kept on-premise accounts for approximately 60 percent of AfC’s overall data storage. 

AfC opted for this model due to mounting costs when needing to change its hosting environment, which was with its web development agency.

“Prior to signing anything with Rackspace we had our hosting with our web development agency, which was a shared environment with a lot of other charities. One of the problems with this set up is that it becomes expensive to ever change web agencies,” said Robertson.

“Every time you want to change, you have got to lift the website up and move it somewhere else, which becomes very time consuming and expensive. This is especially true of the charity sector, where you have to put things out to tender on a regular basis.”

He added: “Now we have the website in a public cloud environment, can leave it there long term, and know that whichever development agency we use over the years, we can just add them to our hosting solution.”

Apart from concerns around changing web agencies, AfC also experiences spikes in demand on the public website when, for example, Stephen Fry tweets about the agency, or when there is a big news story.

By using Rackspace’s public cloud for the web front end, AfC is able to reduce a loss in working hours when this disruption occurs, and also simply pay for what extra capacity it uses.

“One of the biggest issues for us, from a financial perspective, is when we get a celebrity tweet about us. I always use the Stephen Fry example – that guy can bring down a website quite quickly. The issue for us was that we would have to lift the whole website, move it to a dedicated server, which is really expensive, then leave it there for the time being,” said Robertson.

“During this time there was also no ability to upload content onto the website either. When you usually have 80 people working on updating website content, who then can’t do their job for five days - that’s a lot of money lost.”

He added: “We wanted to have the ability to instantly spin up some extra instances off the website, and then only pay for exactly what we are using. Financially, this is going to be a great saving for us.”

AfC began looking at options for a hosting environment in April last year and completed the migration to Rackspace’s datacentre in October. Robertson said that he always envisioned a hybrid environment, rather than placing all of AfC’s data into a public cloud, due to a ‘lot of nervousness within the charity sector’ around cloud use. 

He said that despite the government’s push to use public cloud solutions, charities are always a bit behind the curve due to data sensitivity issues. However, he also said that this attitude will change over time.

“I think it’s coming, I really do. You only have to look at the government who is pushing to put more and more stuff into the cloud. It will happen at some point. But I think the government will be first, and charities will follow,” said Robertson.

However, despite the solution utilising on premise dedicated hardware, Rackspace’s private cloud, and public cloud, the hybrid environment will still deliver a return on investment for the charity.

“It’s definitely about return on investment. We are continuously taking on new projects over the country, we are constantly growing our services, and so it is really important that we can offer a web solution for the majority of our services – whether it be a micro site, or an extension of the full AfC site,” said Robertson.

“It’s the ability to grow that easily by ramping up more resources when needed. It is value for money and allows us to handle that presence, where we were previously restrained from doing so. On top of that there are all the working hours we will save. That’s a massive return on investment for us.”

He added: “Is this cheaper? Yes. If we installed the equipment at the highest point of traffic that would be hugely expensive, and then you would have all the maintenance as well.”

It was revealed at the end of last year, following major announcements from Amazon Web Services around data warehousing and management, that Rackspace has introduced new capabilities for database hosting and management.

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