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Moving forward – backend updates

October 12th, 2011 by Erick Beck

There really are no words to describe the state of the departmental infrastructure environment when I arrived four years ago. There were two servers — www.tamu.edu, which was a big-box Solaris machine that co-hosted 200+ other sites, and one underpowered Windows server running a host of sites on IIS. There was no testing environment…new pages were created in a second directory on the production server. There was no real understanding even that this was not okay.

Over the last four years I have taken a gradualist approach to elevating our backend resources. We purchased more machines, standardized on a LAMP environment, introduced version control, and attempted to bring in web content management. While the last of these steps failed, we gradually got to the point that we at least had a manageable solution.

A “manageable solution” still isn’t where we want to be, though. It is therefore time to take the next step and try to create a truly enterprise capable system.

First, we are starting to decommission older hardware and replace it with virtual hosting managed by CIS. In the past we would just stand up a server and slap a service on it. That was fine to get things working, but is not great if something ever fails. Now we will have the luxury of adding things in such a way that we will have load balanced and redundant systems. One isolated failure will have less opportunity of affecting our entire web presence.

We are also working on ways of speeding up content delivery. Jeff touched on some of these briefly a few weeks ago when he wrote about TAMUtimes. Using Varnish as a reverse proxy server had done wonders in improving that site’s ability to stand up under heavy load. We have also set up a separate assets server running nginx, a lite, fast webserver that can serve out supplemental files such as images, css, and javascript. Combine this with time-to-live caching and the entire site loads faster.

Marcomm was the first university office to partner with CIS in using the Hannon Hill Cascade content management server. We have finally been able to devote significant time to getting our static HTML sites moved under its control. With luck we should have all of them done by the end of the year or early spring.

Most of this probably seems basic, but it represents a big step for our office. We have some more ideas for further improvement down the road, but in the meantime we are finally in the process of creating a solid foundation that will be able to support all of our ongoing efforts.

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011 Future Projects
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