San Diego Emergency Website Disaster-Ready, Scales to 19 Million Page Views Hourly
As if a firestorm devastating 370,000 acres and displacing 515,000 people weren’t enough, County of San Diego personnel had to deal with a crisis all their own: getting information to the public after their website crashed under unprecedented traffic.
To prevent a recurrence, the county now hosts its site on Windows Azure, where it scales to 19 million page views hourly and which costs 78 percent less to maintain than the previous site.
In October 2007, a firestorm ravaged Southern California, consuming 370,000 acres in San Diego County alone. It forced the evacuation of 515,000 residents. It could be seen from space.
It also challenged the county to disseminate emergency information faster and more broadly than ever before. With three major universities plus famed destination spots, San Diego attracts students and vacationers from around the world, all of whom had friends and relatives back home scouring the Internet for information about their welfare during the fires.
Many of those people went to the county’s website. Many more went there after cable news giant CNN linked to it from cnn.com. The site’s traffic rose to 12,000 page views per hour and crashed, and it took several days to re-launch the site, at a time when every moment counted.
County officials were determined not to be caught in a similar bind again. They wanted an online presence that could scale to handle those 12,000 page views and more.
“We couldn’t know how much traffic we’d get the next time, but we knew it would be more,” says Holly Crawford, Director of the Office of Emergency Services of San Diego County. “Mobile phones hadn’t been a major factor in 2007, but they were quickly becoming an ever-larger one. We had to be ready for the future.”
The county wanted to address other limitations, too. Its existing site displayed only text; it lacked highly visual features that could convey more information more quickly. And it was relatively difficult and time-consuming to update—the opposite of what the county needed in an emergency services site.
To close these gaps, the county looked at building out its two-server site to support 120,000 page views per hour—10 times the load that had brought down the original site. The cost was high: around US$350,000 to build a data center, plus $80,000 per year to maintain it.
A cloud-computing platform, however, hosted in data centers across the Internet, could mitigate the capital expense and scalability issues. The county looked at Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud but realized it would still be responsible for continuing maintenance if it chose that service.
Then, Adrian Gonzalez, Technology Manager for the county’s Public Safety Group, saw a demonstration of the Miami-Dade County 311 information system, which was hosted on Windows Azure. “They had solved the same workflow and traffic-spike issues that we faced using Microsoft cloud services, and the operating costs appeared to be minimal,” he says.
The county liked Windows Azure but proceeded cautiously. It engaged Adxstudio, a Microsoft Partner Network member with multiple Gold competencies. The county had Adxstudio test the ability of Windows Azure to support its scalability goals on a simulated site, even hitting that site from third-party sources around the world. Windows Azure passed the test easily, and the county commissioned Adxstudio to build its new emergency services website for the Microsoft platform.
Adxstudio used its flagship product—Adxstudio Portals for Microsoft Dynamics CRM, built on the Microsoft .NET Framework—to construct the scalable, content-managed website. The new emergency services website supports live, streaming video; Twitter and RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds; Bing Maps for navigating threats and resources; and location-based information on, for example, the nearest shelters.
By moving to a Microsoft cloud services solution, San Diego County now has a fully scalable, highly flexible, and low-cost emergency services portal.
Gains Support for 19 Million Page Views per Hour With Windows Azure, the county got the scalability it sought, and then some. It achieves its goal to support 120,000 page views per hour and uses only three Windows Azure instances to do so.
The performance tests showed that Windows Azure scales linearly—that is, with optimal efficiency—to 19 million page views per hour at 50 instances, the largest test that the county and Adxstudio chose to run.
“When we saw Windows Azure exceeding our scalability goals by a factor of 162 times, we thought that would be high enough,” says Gonzalez. “We’re completely comfortable with the ability of Windows Azure to meet our needs, no matter how fast those needs grow.”
Avoids $350,000 in Capital Expense The county needed Windows Azure to be as cost-effective as it is scalable. It is. In contrast to the $350,000 it might have spent to build an on-premises solution, the county avoids capital investment with Windows Azure. And the Windows Azure hosting fee, which scales so that the county pays only for what it uses, comes to about $18,000 a year for non-emergency use, compared to $80,000 a year to maintain an on-premises solution: a savings of about 78 percent.
Gonzalez estimates that emergency use would bring the fee up to only about $7,000 for the month in which the emergency occurred.
Delivers Near Real-Time Updates, Down from Minutes or Hours The portal delivers more information than the previous website did, while making that information easier for county personnel to update and users to find. Because the portal is hosted in the cloud, it can be updated from anywhere with an Internet connection, without needing virtual private network connections to the county network.
Online maps and data such as shelter status can be updated automatically and in near real time; these formerly manual processes used to take anywhere from minutes to hours to implement.