UNLV Rocks the Presidential Debate with Unstoppable Drupal Hosting & Performance

A record-breaking presidential debate with unimpeachable website performance showed UNLV they can trust their website to Pantheon.

Summary

On October 19th, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) played host to the final presidential debate of 2016. Knowing traffic to their site would spike during the event, the university saw an opportunity to replace the school’s outdated web infrastructure with Pantheon’s high-performance hosting. The site’s performance on debate night? Inarguably brilliant.

Until recently, most of UNLV’s site (UNLV.edu) was hosted locally on campus. It wasn’t a perfectly reliable hosting setup, and it kept UNLV’s team on the hook for infrastructure and support, but they soldiered along.

Joe Winton, Director of Web and Digital Marketing, knew the school needed a better solution. He was looking for a platform that could take the burden of infrastructure management off of the local team and provide greater reliability.

The need for a more stable platform became even more urgent when UNLV was chosen to host the final 2016 presidential debate. Similar events at other universities had caused large spikes in traffic. With the world watching, UNLV couldn’t afford to have the site slow down or go offline.

UNLV chose Pantheon for a high-performance hosting solution with the support structure to get the web team out of the server administrator business.

Even with unlimited resources, we could not recreate Pantheon’s infrastructure and workflow.

—Joe Winton, Director of Web & Digital Marketing, UNLV

Before Pantheon: Power Outages and Micromanaging

Before Pantheon, local hosting meant that UNLV’s on-site IT team was in charge of coordinating server maintenance and administration in addition to updating the site and keeping it running.

At times, even keeping the site online was a challenge. If the building suffered a power outage, for example, the site went down and stayed that way until someone could physically power the servers back on. The local UNLV dev team was in a constant state of alert—they had to balance daily maintenance and admin work with inevitable emergencies that would hurt both performance and the school’s online reputation.

Before Pantheon, we were nervous about whether the website would just stay up. Now, we have peace of mind.

—Joe Winton, Director of Web & Digital Marketing, UNLV

With the final debate on the horizon, Winton and his team needed to bring UNLV’s web infrastructure into the 21st century. They needed a platform that could host both Drupal and WordPress sites and automate much of the tedious admin work that was bogging down the team.

A Quick Move into the National Spotlight

It’s not every day a university enjoys the attention that a major presidential debate brings. To rise to the occasion, UNLV needed to choose a website platform that would all but guarantee stellar performance—and get it up and running in time for the event.

On top of the need for general reliability, Winton knew that similar events had caused major spikes in traffic for other universities. He and his team chose Pantheon’s smooth scaling for its ability to meet these fluctuations. They knew they could count on Pantheon’s support and expertise when the time came to kick off the debate.

Setting a New Bar for Higher Education Technology

Higher education web hosting is notorious for lagging behind the times. But not all university dev teams are willing to maintain the status quo. Winton evaluated several hosting options but found Pantheon offered more than just hosting.

It was the platform, workflows, and advanced technical knowhow from the support team that UNLV needed. They chose Pantheon knowing they could brace their site for the upcoming event and continue to deliver outstanding performance in the future.

The ability to host Drupal and WordPress sites on a single platform—a service unique to Pantheon—was a key selling point for us.

—Joe Winton, Director of Web & Digital Marketing, UNLV

Winton didn’t just consider performance. A flood of new traffic would increase the risk of being targeted by hackers and spammers. With DDoS protection, SSO, and over a million checks a day on Pantheon’s platform, the UNLV team was confident that their time in the spotlight wouldn’t hurt more than it helped.

Even the workflows on Pantheon would change everything. The developers on UNLV’s web team now have test environments identical to production, where they are free to push the envelope—exploring and innovating without compromising the live environment. With Pantheon’s automation and version control, ongoing development is faster and more reliable than ever.

Moving to Pantheon: Support and Guidance, All the Way

Pantheon’s specialization in higher education helped tip the scales for Winton and his team. They had seen how well the platform worked for 19 other US universities with similar woes, and wanted to move past the in-house efforts they had gotten by on so far.

They also wanted someone they could call when they needed guidance. Pantheon’s support team stayed in close contact with Winton before and during the migration, always there with an answer from a team member who had worked directly with other .edu customers.

With Pantheon’s help, migration was quick and seamless. Pantheon hosted weekly development calls to make sure proper progress was being made, helping Winton’s team acclimate to the new Test and Live environments. As a result, UNLV hit their goal of a 30-day migration and onboarding process—in time for a presidential debate that drew in nearly 72 million viewers across the country.

With Pantheon: High-Performance Hosting, Reliability, and New Opportunities

UNLV.edu’s trial by fire came on debate night, as traffic to the site surged to 10x normal levels. With the world watching, the site’s performance was positively presidential. Pantheon not only kept the site live, it maintained an uncompromised user experience. The performance boosts the team saw during normal traffic stayed in play throughout the spike.

Now UNLV is officially out of the server administration business. They no longer have to expend precious dev resources to squeeze more performance, stability, and flexibility out of their website. All three are a given on Pantheon, letting Winton’s team focus on further developing and optimization.

The site has improved by “leaps and bounds”, says Winton. “The technology just sells itself. It’s easy to manage, and it’s quick to implement.”

In every way that you can measure performance of the website, Pantheon has helped.

—Joe Winton, Director of Web & Digital Marketing, UNLV

With their newfound freedom from infrastructure woes, the UNLV team turned their attention toward major process improvements. They began to work on changes that would empower each department to manage and update their own areas of the site. Winton’s goal was to drastically cut down the hundreds of website requests a month to engineering, using Pantheon to create an easy-to-learn system where non-technical staff members could safely make updates on their own.

UNLV prides itself on being different, pushing ahead where others won’t. After landing the opportunity to host a presidential debate, they knew it was their chance to shine on a world stage. With Pantheon handling the infrastructure, UNLV.edu can handle the increased traffic—and scrutiny—proving itself worthy of the university’s reputation for excellence.

For more on how Pantheon works for higher education institutions, download our eBook, 4 Wonders of the Higher Education World. Or create a free account to explore for yourself.

Benefits

  • Improved performance

  • Reliable, stable platform with redundancies in place

  • Ability to handle traffic spikes autonomously, including a 10x increase on debate night

  • Development environments and workflows to encourage safe innovation.