Load Balancing for Education – Getting Started

During the COVID-19 situation I have been doing some consultancy for schools and colleges looking for a bit of help to support the sudden change to remote schooling and teaching. The range of IT infrastructure varies widely and it’s certainly pushed me out of my comfort zone exploring vendors and solutions I’ve not explored before.

In a large further education or community college there is usually already a reasonable degree of server infrastructure in use (Exchange, Sharepoint) and often some cloud-based applications (typically Microsoft 365). The IT teams in such institutions are typically small and multi-skilled often driven by a single system administrator who does most roles from architecture, software patches, crawling under desks to change cables and providing support to reset student or teacher logins.

Recently I was asked to advise a regional college regarding a few niggles they’d had implementing remote and blended learning around their use of Microsoft Teams but also their Learning Management System (LMS) Moodle.  Whilst they always had the applications and framework to deliver curriculum content remotely in practice most lesson plans and delivery were created on local machines and personal drives and the use of Moodle limit to some homework setting. Suddenly, they saw a 1750% increase in network traffic associated with delivering content (including video) or communication technologies. The IT team realised a need not only to expand their server capacity but also introduce load balancing technology to ensure high-availability and alleviate bottlenecks, particularly on their SharePoint and Moodle servers.

A hardware load balancer – another black box for your datacentre!

Having worked in the past almost exclusively with NetScaler (now branded Citrix ADC) by virtue of being in Citrix ecosystems I couldn’t help feel that NetScaler, whilst a very flexible and sophisticated product, wasn’t quite the right one; it felt somewhat expensive but also overkill compared to the relative simplicity of their other infrastructure. I reached out to the UK EUC community in June for suggestions of options to evaluate and Tim Harrison (Systems Analyst at Derbyshire Police Force) suggested that Kemp Technologies may well suit their use case.

Kemp certainly are not a Unicorn, privately owned and founded in 2000, they’ve grown steadily to 100k+ customers and weathered the 2008 downturn focussing on core load balancing technologies. Their product range is very focused on one core product LoadMaster; essentially a virtualised / software-defined Load Balancer, which can be supplied Cloud Native or installed on a physical appliance (you buy a hardware box to plug in on premises.). So they are a solid vendor unlikely to disappear in a VC fuelled puff of smoke.

My experiences with NetScaler have primarily been with very large enterprises who often have a dedicated expert on Application Delivery Controllers but for many organisations and even very large ones whose primary business is not digital, IT teams can be incredibly small. In the case of the community college I was working with, 17000 student and staff users are supported by a IT team of 4. There are many businesses such as local government/councils, offices, housing associations or call centres etc where a small IT team support a fairly standard range of office applications and platforms (Microsoft 365, Google GSuite, Web Servers) alongside a few key industry specific apps/platforms e.g. in this case the LMS Moodle. Whilst NetScaler, undoubtedly gives you all the Bells and Whistles that also comes with not only a hefty price tag but also a high learning curve. Kemp on the other hand have focused on a more limited but core feature set that should fulfil the needs of a large subset of the market.

More important than a pure technology feature set, what Kemp offers is rather different in terms of overall “product”. By product I mean what is the experience of the sys admin who has to evaluate/choose and subsequently install, configure and maintain a Load Balancer. Basically, you don’t have to know very much about Load Balancing to get up and running and their website is very focused around using the product. The website itself is surprisingly low on sales/marketing and high on how-to-information.

For the specific college use case, there was clear information on the support for Microsoft applications plus specific information on Moodle and other educational platforms such as EduPoint ( a Student Information System(SIS)). Even if you are unfamiliar with Moodle, it is quite interesting to look at the general format of Kemp’s application specific support; on the Moodle page there’s a Deployment Guide plus a Moodle Template (more of those later). The Deployment Guide covers everything a Sys Admin is likely to need to know to get started and acts as a reference guide. The template is a ready-to-go configuration file for LoadMaster, based on their and customers’ experiences with the specific application.   For the IT team in the college scenario this is unbelievably helpful, rather than wade through the vast array of defaults and try to tune themselves, application by application the IT manager can load in an optimised configuration likely to work out-of-the-box and with the option to tweak and create their own custom templates long-term. There’s a huge list of applications supported via a templates on this page covering most products from major vendors VMware, Citrix, Microsoft, SAP, Oracle and so on, plus a large number of sector specific key apps like Moodle such as Epic and Cerner etc. for healthcare.

For the multi-tasking sys admin it’s a pretty easy product to evaluate with sizing guides and tools and a useful feature matrix comparative to Citrix and F5 products. There’s also a nice solid clutch of case studies giving you a feel for the type of customers using their products. Those from the educational sector, with specifics on network throughput, alternatives considered/replaced and the IT system descriptions proved particularly useful for the team I was working with in evaluating what their needs and challenges may be and prompted considering other options/decisions (e.g. Cloud choice) associated with a sudden move to remote and blended learning. Small details from customers were really useful for setting expectations/targets e.g. the Education First case study contains details on latency around downloading student materials and points in the Clark University overview aided planning a strategy of High Availability and Redundancy around load balancer usage. Whilst the Moodle platform and Teams infrastructure has long been deployed in this particular college, it was not heavily used and essentially an asynchronous non-critical resource, now in these COVID-19 times outages or problems could lead to lost teaching and education which is simply unacceptable.

Of course as a vendor site one has to take it all in that context but there is genuine substance and data to form questions around and a decent Enterprise grade Support Knowledge Base where you can get a good grasp of the product and vendor. External customer reviews and ratings are pretty high but also give a good measure of the rough edges/limitations – overall consensus is it’s reliable, easy to use and economical for most users, although the UI/IX is felt to be a bit clunky and annoys some users.

Overall, Tim’s suggestion has been extremely helpful to myself and the college IT team in hardening the likely demands and requirements for the upcoming school year and whatever this strange year has yet to throw at education!

Disclosure: Having contact Kemp regarding my clients educational use case I did take part as a paid panelist on a discussion around changing application deployment architectures and how COVID-19 is raising the agenda for high-availability and application delivery performance (so kids don’t miss out on remote schooling or servers clog up when classes start at 9am). The recording is available, see “Unlocking the Modern Application Experience”.

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