Electronic learning management systems (LMS) have become critical adjuncts to college education, supporting not only in-class coursework but also online classes. An example is the ELMS Learning Network (ELMSLN), described as a sort of “Google Apps suite” of educational technology tools. The open source ELMSLN was originally developed at Penn State but is now a collaborative project involving multiple institutions.

Bryan Ollendyke is the founder and project lead for ELMSLN. “I’m directly responsible for the students who take online courses through the College of Arts and Architecture,” he explains. “We build very tailored solutions using Drupal as our development framework.” It’s a challenging task, since educational institutions are chronically short of resources: “In the education field, we don’t have many system administrators,” says Ollendyke. Nevertheless, in 8 years he’s gone from supporting 50 students to supporting more than 3,000.

Troubleshooting in a complex environment

With that many students depending on the system, when one of his servers mysteriously went offline two days in a row, and simply restarting Apache didn’t fix it, Ollendyke needed to quickly figure out what was going wrong. His existing monitoring software couldn’t tell much more than “the processor is really angry right now,” he recalls. “It wasn’t anything really useful. ELMSLN is a lot of systems talking to each other, and if there are errors in the handshakes, it’s not, ‘I loaded the page and there’s an error.’ It’s ‘I loaded the page and something told something else that it needed to check on data and that failed miserably.’”

bryan ollendykeTo pinpoint the failure, Ollendyke needed a more robust tool. He convinced his boss to pay for a month of New Relic and leveraged New Relic Servers and New Relic APM to find out what was going on. “We weren’t going down anymore, but we were still seeing these huge spikes that really had no explanation. New Relic found three or four large fires, and as we put out each one, I told everybody we were good. But then I saw new spikes coming, and I thought, ‘maybe we’re not.’”

Using New Relic, he was able to figure out that the problem lay in the interaction between a media server, which was running on a robust system, and an analytics engine, which was not. “We were generating all these unnecessary connections that we were never going to be able to handle and that were tracking something we didn’t even care about,” he explains.

Beyond putting out fires

It took about a week, Ollendyke estimates, to fix the problems New Relic revealed. But as it turned out, that wasn’t all New Relic helped him accomplish. “In the week when I was fixing things, we actually ended up tracing and resolving a lot of issues with other Drupal projects outside of ELMS,” he says. “I found a lot of issues where people had misidentified what the cause of an issue was. I now had the trace data to tell people, ‘I changed this function, and now magically all of your other issues go away.’”

Even though Ollendyke takes pride in being “kind of an open source hardliner,” he sees real value in buying New Relic. “Other people on campus get interested when I actually recommend they pay for things because I don’t do it very often,” he says. “About the only things I’ve ever recommended that anyone buy are Slack and Sublime Text. And now, New Relic, which isn’t something that would actually even make sense to be open source.”

New Relic’s ripple effect

As usage of ELMSLN has grown, the benefits added by New Relic have rippled out beyond Penn State. “ELMSLN is a collaborative, distributed type of solution,” Ollendyke explains. “There are other colleges at Penn State, some groups at Wisconsin, and some in the UK that are also using the software. Anything that we find and fix in the platform here benefits a lot more than the 3,000 students that we serve directly.”

To learn more about how New Relic helped the team at ELMS Learning Network optimize its code and understand how to plan for capacity the system rolls out to additional classes, read the full case study:
Penn State Keeps an Innovative Online Learning Environment on Track with New Relic


Background image courtesy of Shutterstock.com.


Jake Widman is a San Francisco-based freelance technology and science writer, covering everything from big data to quantum physics. He's a regular contributor to Computerworld, CMO.com, and Photoshop User. View posts by .

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