Cancer Research UK stands up to heavy traffic with cloud

Man in research lab

When Cancer Research UK wanted to cope with people making donations during the recent Channel 4 television charity fundraising event “Stand Up to Cancer” it turned to the cloud to scale for the peaks in demand the show would bring.

The charity looked to cloud provider FireHost to host the website that would raise funds for cancer research. The infrastructure provided able to support the campaign’s sole, fully PCI-compliant donation webpage flawlessly, even during great traffic surges.

Cancer Research UK is one of the world’s leading cancer charity dedicated to saving lives through research. The charity’s pioneering work into the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer has helped save millions of lives, and the £7.1m raised by the Stand Up To Cancer campaign to date, will go towards continuing the work carried out by its 4,000 scientists, doctors and nurses.

Stand Up To Cancer was the charity’s first-ever fundraising event of this type in the UK, with the campaign building towards a live show, broadcast on Channel 4 on Friday 19 October this year.

To support the payment website for Stand Up To Cancer, the charity needed a specialist cloud hosting provider which not only complied with PCI DSS (Payment card industrydata security standard) regulations governing the security of credit card user information, but one that could also demonstrate its resilience even during extreme spikes in visitor numbers.

Given the nature of the campaign and the programming push issued by Channel 4, the bulk of Stand Up To Cancer’s fundraising was expected to take place during the live show itself, as a result, it was crucial that the payment website performed to a high level throughout this four and a half hour period, providing a good end user experience. At peak times, the donations platform processed up to nine credit card and ten PayPal transactions per second.

During the Stand Up To Cancer live show, the site managed 16,000 credit card and 14,000 PayPal transactions in just four and half hours – out of a total of 38,000 transactions, which were processed throughout the whole campaign. The infrastructure was well provisioned to withstand this demand.

Prior to the event, Cancer Research UK had meticulously reviewed site performance under strain; including load testing that ensured the infrastructure could process a minimum of 50 transactions per second. Testing showed the FireHost infrastructure could support 300 transactions per second (18,000 per minute).

“Technically, the platform performed extremely well and support on the night from FireHost was excellent,” said Bill Marshall, senior project manager at Cancer Research UK. "We felt confident from beginning to end; FireHost was extremely quick to respond to our initial request and was immediately top of our list in terms of being able to provide exactly what we needed.

“Right from our first conversations, I felt confident the FireHost team could deliver what they’d promised and that we’d have all the assistance we required to support the Stand Up To Cancer online donations website,” said Marshall.

The charity used FireHost’s secure cloud infrastructure as, according to Marshall, its own infrastructure alone would not be able to scale up and down as necessary. “We needed a solution that could scale quickly to handle transaction peaks expected following broadcast calls to action, and which could scale down again once traffic levels returned to normal. The virtual private cloud that CRUK uses for its main web infrastructure doesn’t have that level of flexibility,” said Marshall.

He added that the secure cloud infrastructure was implemented specifically for the Stand Up To Cancer campaign. “CRUK (Cancer Research UK) maintains a number of websites on a virtual private cloud but these are not subject to the very high and short duration peaks that characterised the SU2C traffic.”

Marshall said that for the website, an online donation application was developed which integrated with WorldPay and PayPal. The application was developed using open source technologies including PHP, MySQL, Nginx, HA Proxy and Redis. By default the application handled authorisations for card payments in real time, but was also capable of storing card details and queuing them to re-submit in the event of an issue with the payment gateway, hence the need for a PCI compliant environment.

The application was scaled across 14 web servers at peak, scaling from one CPU and 1GB RAM up to 8 CPUs and 8 GB RAM per virtual server as demand dictated during the event. Marshall said that the cloud-based website provided by FireHost meant that “we only paid for what we used, which offered significant savings over CRUK’s existing hosting provider.” Also, the PCI compliance ‘out of the box’ that FireHost provided meant that CRUK could save time and money by not having to implement PCI controls on another infrastructure solution.”

Ben McCormack, FireHost’s EMEA director of operations said implementing the cloud for CRUK and the Stand up to Cancer event was a “fantastic project to be involved with”, but also presented “the kind of technical challenge we absolutely revel in. With Cancer Research UK’s event lasting just a few hours, any downtime for the payments site would have severely hampered its fundraising efforts,” he said.

McCormack added that the resiliency and PCI compliance built into its cloud offering went a long way to prevent any downtime during the show, ensuring the site was as successful as the show itself.

While the website was a one-off this year in terms of running a television charity event, Marshall said that the cloud infrastructure would be used again. “We have a re-usable approach for implementing an online donation solution when we come to do the SU2C campaign again.”

Rene Millman

Rene Millman is a freelance writer and broadcaster who covers cybersecurity, AI, IoT, and the cloud. He also works as a contributing analyst at GigaOm and has previously worked as an analyst for Gartner covering the infrastructure market. He has made numerous television appearances to give his views and expertise on technology trends and companies that affect and shape our lives. You can follow Rene Millman on Twitter.