JustGiving uses virtualisation to keep taking charitable donations

When the online fundraising site experienced a huge surge in traffic in April 2012, its virtualised infrastructure was primed to take the strain.

After Claire Squires collapsed and died while running the London Marathon on 22 April 2012, the public flocked to her fundraising page on JustGiving.com.

They visited from 60 different countries, some just to look, but more than 71,000 to make a donation to the charity she supported, Samaritans. In the week following Claire’s death, donations on her fundraising page jumped from £500 to more than £1 million.

Anne-Marie Huby, Managing Director of JustGiving, described the public’s response as “extraordinary” and a “true gesture of sympathy”, and announced that the company would waive its normal fee on donations made in Claire’s name. Behind the scenes, meanwhile, a similarly extraordinary effort was being expended on ensuring that JustGiving’s infrastructure was able to cope with the sheer volume of traffic it was experiencing.

Tim Henderson, Operations Manager at JustGiving.com, takes up the story: “Over the busiest day, I estimate we had over a million unique visitors and almost 2 million hits, peaking at around 13,500 concurrent users. This equates to around 8,000 page views a minute or 133 page views a second, which is around 4,000 HTTP requests a second to our web servers – more traffic than I have ever personally seen on systems I have worked on.”

Fortunately, JustGiving was prepared for the rush of traffic. At the end of 2011, its managed hosting provider Qube Managed Services had refreshed its infrastructure and virtualised the majority of its servers, moving JustGiving’s infrastructure onto virtual machine (VM) instances hosted on Qube’s VMware-based cloud platform in its UK data centre.

The scalability this set-up provides proved indispensable as the traffic to Claire Squire’s JustGiving page started building. Qube’s engineers quickly started work on cloning machines in the network to handle the additional traffic and enabling the JustGiving website to deal with page requests and process payments.

Matthew Brennan, Sales Manager at Qube Managed Services stated: “Qube’s key value is service. We are a client focused company and we take great pride in proactively monitoring our clients’ networks. When JustGiving had a massive spike in traffic to their site, not only were we the first to notice, but our engineers responded rapidly to the challenge by intervening early on to increase the capacity of the network. JustGiving’s virtual platform is adaptable and designed to be scalable, so our engineers were able to hot add system resources with zero downtime. The unprecedented volume of additional traffic was easily managed by cloning virtual machines and deploying new web servers to take the extra traffic. As a company we waived additional fees for the work, to enable JustGiving & Claire Squires donors to maximise the value of their donations to the Samaritans.”

With the cloud platform enabling JustGiving to cope with high levels of traffic, the company was able to continue to operate as a business and take donations from the other fundraising pages as well as Claire Squires’ page.

Tim Henderson adds: “This barrage of traffic, with the resulting mass of page requests and donation journeys at the same time, can lead to problems for a web site and is similar to experiencing an online attack, which can cause the system to collapse. Downtime for JustGiving, as for any online business, means lost revenue, as well as reputational damage. Without virtualisation and the hosted service from Qube Managed Services it would have taken much, much longer to scale up and I doubt we could have handled the surges in traffic.”

With traffic and donation levels now ticking along at a more usual pace, the JustGiving IT team can reflect on a unique period, which brought the web site in to the UK’s top 100 most visited sites for the first time (ranked by Hitwise at number 79 for one day).

The next step is for Qube to move JustGiving’s infrastructure to VMware’s Cloud Orchestration software platform. This will provide JustGiving with secure access to control, manage and provision its own cloud environment on Qube’s public cloud infrastructure hosted in Qube’s data centre. The system will give JustGiving ultimate flexibility to provision cloud servers that are right-sized to its needs.

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