The ACLU Weathers Unprecedented Traffic Spikes with Pantheon

Pantheon enables the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to weather traffic spikes while providing infrastructure to support the organization.

Summary

For nearly 100 years, the ACLU has worked in courts, legislatures, and communities to defend and preserve the rights and liberties granted by the Constitution. They rely on Pantheon for a best practice development workflow and flexible hosting that can handle major traffic spikes.

Since 1920, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has worked to defend individual freedom. With more than two million members, activists, and supporters, the ACLU is a nationwide non-profit organization that fights for constitutional rights across the political spectrum.   

The organization’s flagship website, aclu.org, plays a vital role in fundraising and keeping the public informed. In addition to the main site, the ACLU also directly supports and develops over 20 state affiliate sites.

The past five years have seen unprecedented growth for the ACLU. When the election cycle began in earnest in 2016, interest in the organization skyrocketed. That intensity only increased as the results came in and inauguration day drew near. In January of 2017 alone, the organization received the same amount of donations they took in for all of 2016.

The increased interest in the ACLU means increased traffic to the national site and to their affiliates. In 2013, the organization’s infrastructure was struggling to meet demand. The ACLU needed a reliable, scalable solution. They needed a platform that could handle increased traffic on demand, as well as provide workflows that could help support their affiliate sites.

The ACLU chose Pantheon for infrastructure that can handle massive traffic spikes, and its Multidev environments for easier testing and implementation.

If we had to keep up with DevOps, we wouldn’t have time to focus on the challenges of the new environment we find ourselves in. 

—Marco Carbone, Associate Director of IT, ACLU

ACLU website screenshot

The ACLU’s Vital Mission

ACLU relies on their website as their top communication channel to inform the public and incite action. The site serves a variety of audiences, including donors, activists, members, and most importantly, those who are directly affected by the organization’s work.

One of the most visited sections of the site is the Know Your Rights section. This area of the site is a resource for everyone from breastfeeding mothers to protesters to LGBT high school students. Each article examines the constitutional rights in question, as well as the legal limitations on those in authority.

During the election, the organization shared crucial information on polling and voting rights. Outside of election cycles the site continues to promote advocacy with up-to-the-minute news reporting, and tools that visitors can use to contact their senators and representatives.

As Carbone puts it, “If the site goes down, it’s not good: We need to be readily available to serve this information to those seeking it.”

Before Pantheon: Instability and Uncertainty

In 2013, aclu.org was straining against the hardware limitations of its managed hosting solution. An organizational push for more high-visibility campaigns was leading an unexpected level of traffic to the site. Frequently, these traffic spikes would slow down—or even take down—the site.

Structural issues in the site’s design added to the hardware woes. The site used core Drupal search for its user search solution, which meant that just a few users searching at once could slow down the site. That vulnerability made the search bar a tempting target for malicious users, too.

The organization looked for solutions with their existing host, but found their response less than satisfying. “We would go to [the vendor] and they would recommend more expensive hardware, and it would take weeks and weeks to get it ready to go,” says Carbone. After a few rounds of time-consuming, costly upgrades, it was clear they needed a better solution.

Choosing Pantheon: A Strong Drupal Pedigree

Pantheon has been a fixture of the Drupal community for years. The company’s commitment to educating and elevating the community was a deciding factor for Carbone. As an experienced Drupal developer, Carbone knew Pantheon’s founders personally, and had seen firsthand the advantages of developing on Drupal on Pantheon.

With Pantheon: Weathering Traffic Spikes up to 8,500%

Between the election and inauguration, the ACLU made it clear they would fight unconstitutional attempts by the president-elect to fulfill his campaign promises. On January 19th, the organization announced a 7-point plan to protect a wide variety of minority groups and take on the incoming administration.

On inauguration day, aclu.org saw traffic spikes up to 986% higher than normal. When the new president announced his executive order to expand the border wall, traffic surged 496%.

The biggest spike of all was on January 28th, following the president’s travel ban. As fastly.com reports, donations over that weekend were six times the organization’s yearly average, with a corresponding increase in traffic. Traffic spiked to 1,149% and continued to climb, reaching over 8,500% of its normal rate. Since then, traffic has sustained increases of 2,000-3,000% of the previous baseline.

Elastic hosting with Pantheon enabled the site to stay live throughout these surges. The site was able to expand capacity on-demand in real time, without waiting weeks for hardware upgrades.

With Pantheon: Easy Infrastructure Administration

Multidev makes it easier for the ACLU to administer affiliate sites. The dev team created a custom Drupal distribution for any affiliate site to use and set it as an upstream in Pantheon. Now it’s easy to spin up a new site for affiliates, using Terminus commands to deploy the site through the Dev, Test, and Live environments.

The ACLU has also seen a higher level of support than they previously experienced. Says Carbone, “When we had unique security requests, [Pantheon] was very responsive to them. Often times, they would build the solution into the platform.”

The move to Pantheon equipped the ACLU with vital tools for improving the site’s performance and the ability to administer affiliate sites as well. Carbone and his team moved the search functionality from Drupal’s default search to Apache Solr, an indexing and search system that is part of Pantheon’s standard loadout.

The organization also makes good use of the platform’s free access to New Relic Pro. As the site continues to attract record numbers of visitors, monitoring and optimization is of crucial importance. Carbone and his team use New Relic to monitor slow queries and find opportunities to improve performance.

With Pantheon: Scalability and Stability

Since migrating to Pantheon, aclu.org has gone through trial by fire. In the days leading up to the 2017 presidential inauguration, the organization set new fundraising records every day. This level of attention—and the attention of malicious hackers—would have seriously hampered or disabled the site on their old host. With Pantheon’s scalable hosting and some additional optimization, the site has continued to be a crucial resource for keeping people informed and inciting action.

Pantheon has held up extremely well in terms of scaling for the huge post-election traffic spikes that we’ve seen.

—Marco Carbone, Associate Director of IT, ACLU

The ACLU needed a stable, low-maintenance solution to support their fundraising and activism efforts. With Pantheon, they found a partner that can support their current needs and equip them to keep fighting in the future.

Benefits

  • Responsive support; implementation of requested features

  • Multidev workflow allows easier administration of affiliate sites

  • Scalability to handle massive traffic spikes