Clouds, virtualisation run Red Nose Day for Comic Relief

Comic Relief will today be using cloud computing and virtualisation to handle the deluge of donations it expects from today's Red Nose Day.

Partners including Carrenza, Cisco, HP and more donate their kit, services and expertise to the fundraising drive each year. "We've got an exceptionally wonderful partner group this year, all donating skills for free," Charlotte Meln, Comic Relief's web manager, told IT PRO.

Each year, the charity's technology team looks to improve upon last year's performance. "We look to be as much at the forefront of tech as we can, with an eye to risk," she explained. "We can't be bleeding edge, but we like to be at the forefront."

"We're doing the same balancing act between innovation and risk mitigation that an organisation does on a three yearly basis, but we do it each year," she said.

Over the summer, Comic Relief and partners Carenza, Oracle and Cisco met up to look at the technology situation for the coming campaign, when the charity realised its needs were getting beyond the limitations of the hardware it had.

Last year, Red Nose Day saw 2.3 million visitors to the website, and 450,000 donations in seven hours with peaks of 55 transactions a second. "It's quite phenomenal," Melen said. Last year, 16 million was raised, making up a quarter of Comic Relief's annual revenue.

To handle the big web peaks, they've moved to a cloud computing system. "Because of the size and scalability," she said. "Our huge peaks of traffic need elasticity between platform and applications."

Cloud computing also let the system be designed for redundancy, and it has no single point of failure. "That was a big thing for us this year," she said, explaining the payment platform needs 100 per cent uptime. "Several minutes downtime is very serious for us," she said.

"As cloud computing became tried and tested, it seemed the natural progression," she said. "Cloud computing is almost tailor-made for us."

The charity was also looking to get onto virtualisation to reduce the amount of hardware running all year around. Comic Relief had 15 racks of hardware, which had to stay on all year round, despite the fact that outside of the big campaign they were hardly used. "All that kit was just used for the event," Melen said.

Now, they've moved to virtualised machines running on just six racks for three months of the year, saving cost, energy and administrative time, she said.

The system this year is made up of six racks of hardware, running 60 to 80 virtual machines to support the web payment front end, which is also used by all 12,000 call centre operators to take donations.

From a hardware standpoint, Comic Relief is using Cisco 6500-series networking, HP C-class blade servers and a pair of 3PAR 400-series virtual SANs, the charity said.

Payment processing will run though PayPal or RBS Worldpay, with the website running on a LAMP stack with a Drupal Content Management System, and a Java/Tomcat front end for the donations platform, both of which use Zeus traffic management software.

Comic Relief is also using Oracle Database 11g with active dataguard, Stretched RAC and BIEE/RUEI for monitoring and management, as well as VMWare ESX 3.5 for web servers. The platform was stress tested using Oracle's Web Application Testing software.

Today, there will be a team of between 20 and 25 technology experts from all of Comic Relief's IT partners looking after the system, to ensure everything runs smoothly. Melen described it as "seven hours of intense concentration."

Melen is hopeful that the hard work will pay off, and donations will top the 16 million hit last year. "Even with the economic climate, we're still expecting the same response," she said. "When people themselves are in trouble, it pushes the empathy button."

Click here to visit the Red Nose Day site to donate.