American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
Since 1920, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has worked to defend individual freedom. The organization’s flagship website, aclu.org, plays a vital role in fundraising and keeping the public informed.
This pressure increases during election years and, in 2016 and again in 2020, Marco Carbone, Associate Director of IT at ACLU, monitored the website intently as presidential elections drew thousands of times more traffic than normal. Although he had anticipated a surge in traffic, it was hard to imagine just how big it would grow.
Thankfully, his team runs on Pantheon's WebOps platform, which allows them to not only weather unprecedented traffic spikes with high-performance hosting but also to respond to customer needs by updating messaging quickly and launching timely campaigns. This has been especially important through COVID-19 and the rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement and is made possible through Pantheon's development workflows.
If we had to keep up with DevOps, we wouldn’t have time to focus on the challenges of this new political environment.
— Marco Carbone, Associate Director of IT, ACLU
The past five years have seen unprecedented growth for the ACLU. Through it all, the ACLU has relied on Pantheon’s hosting infrastructure and development tools to keep the site running smoothly during even the biggest traffic spikes—ultimately allowing the team to focus on creating and executing timely campaigns. In addition, tools like Multidev and Custom Upstreams facilitate collaboration between marketers and developers — a primary pillar of a WebOps practice.
The ACLU’s Vital Mission
The ACLU’s website is the organization’s primary communication channel. They use it to inform the public and encourage action among a wide variety of audiences including donors, activists, members, and, most importantly, those who are directly affected by the organization’s work.
We need to be in front of big news stories to incite action. If the site goes down, we miss the opportunity to serve information to those seeking it.
— Marco Carbone, Associate Director of IT, ACLU
From the popular Know Your Rights section of the site, which educates citizens on their constitutional freedoms, to critical polling and voting information during elections, everyone from protesters to LGBT high school students to breastfeeding mothers turns to the ACLU for up-to-the-minute resources.
It’s not just the main ACLU website that needs to perform. The organization has dozens of affiliate sites to support their hosting solutions. And as far back as 2013, Carbone and his team were struggling to meet increasing demands on their infrastructure and development workflow.
Challenge: Instability and Uncertainty
Before moving to Pantheon, aclu.org was straining against the hardware limitations of its managed hosting solution. An organizational push for more high-visibility campaigns was leading to 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,” said Carbone. After a few rounds of time-consuming, costly upgrades, it was clear they needed a better solution.
As an experienced Drupal developer, Carbone knew Pantheon had been a fixture of the Drupal community for years. He had seen first-hand the advantages of developing Drupal sites on Pantheon and was ready to solve the ACLU’s infrastructure issues for good. The team looked into all the options, and ultimately Pantheon won out.
The First Big Test: Insane Election Traffic Spikes
The 2016 election was the first big test facing aclu.org, as the organization fought to activate the vote. Traffic started its upward trend during the debates but didn’t reach alarming levels until the week of the election when it peaked at 2,500% higher than normal levels. On inauguration day, it was still nearly 1,000% higher than average.
From there, it just kept going. When the president announced the border wall executive order on January 25, 2017, it surged 500%. The biggest spike of all came with the administration’s travel ban in February 2017, when traffic climbed to an incredible 8,500% of its normal volume and led to donations of six times the organization’s yearly average over a single weekend.
Pantheon has scaled seamlessly for the huge post-election traffic spikes that we’ve seen.
—Marco Carbone, Associate Director of IT, ACLU
Pantheon’s scalable, high-performance hosting enabled the site to stay live throughout these surges. With zero outages and solid performance, the organization was able to ride the wave of newfound interest in US politics. Today, they continue to meet heightened traffic demands, monitoring performance using New Relic on Pantheon.
Throughout this, traffic wasn't their only concern — the ACLU was providing resources and support, and driving donations to those affected by the administration's policies. Their marketing team had to share messaging in real time, and tweak the website's features and functionality according to the news. This level of agility is still necessary today.
To enable this, Carbone uses Multidev to manage aclu.org, along with 20 affiliate sites, on Pantheon. Multidev allows multiple developers to work in parallel and gives stakeholders the ability to review and approve changes in real time, before release. In addition, the team at the ACLU has created a custom Drupal distribution and set it as an Upstream on Pantheon, making it easy to spin up new sites for affiliates on demand.
Agile Marketing When It Matters the Most
When marketing needs to go into overdrive, the site’s infrastructure no longer stops them. Team members can quickly publish site updates to call their members and donors to action. They can launch email and social campaigns that require new site content without relying on engineering resources or wondering if the traffic they generate will bring everything down.
With Pantheon’s support, the ACLU has transformed the way they respond to the rapidly changing needs of their diverse audience. Carbone and his team enjoy a better workflow, lower security risk, and greater confidence in the performance of a site that keeps millions of US citizens informed and empowered.
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