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Black Friday: How It Played Out, An Eyewitness Account

Sep 12th, 2017 | Posted In : News,Updates

by Alex Dault, NGSIS Program Assistant

“If we make it to 9:10 am, we’ll be okay.”

Miki Harmath utters these words at 8:54 AM, August 4th in the EASI war room. The room is lit up with projections of ACORN log-on stats and server usage. There is a box of untouched doughnuts and muffins on the table but no one has much of an appetite. All eyes are glued to the screens indicating the load balance of the four servers and the steadily increasing number of users attempting to access the system.

Laurel Williams, IT Analyst and Java Build Coordinator, nurses her coffee and murmurs:

“I told the barista that it was a big day for enrolment. He asked if I was a registrar. “No, I’m in IT” I said. He gave me this coffee for free.”

At 9:00 am, registration opens to the 4th year students. The number of active users starts to leap upwards, jumping up into the thousands in a matter of seconds.

This is Black Friday, the first Friday in August which is the “priority drop” enrolment period for all Faculty of Arts & Sciences (FAS) students. The day has become infamous among IT and Enrolment staff because for the past two years (2015, 2016) the massive volume of log-ins (33,000 anticipated but as many as 60,000 possible) to the ACORN and SWS site has overloaded servers and crashed the site.

A reddit thread from the r/UofT subreddit records the frustration of last year’s meltdown.

“RIP ACORN” posted user BenZion last year, “Couldn’t even make it to the login page”

“There is no hope.” wrote back user SoupDoge (also back in 2016)

Late in the afternoon in 2016, a representative from the ACORN project team replied to the chorus of acrimony with the following response:

We built ACORN to improve the student user experience. This takes into account not only features and interactions on the app itself but the entire experience of using it. Today we clearly failed big time. For those impacted we apologize sincerely. There’s not much to say that will change or help what happened this morning. The idea that this is an inevitable occurrence each year is not in line with our goals for ACORN or our values as a team. It’s obviously something we need to change and improve upon so this doesn’t happen again.

-ACORN Project Team

It was a contrite and heartfelt apology and sincere in that the ACORN and IT systems teams were determined not to allow this to happen next year.

* * *

“Well, it’s 9:11 so I think we’ll make it….” murmurs Miki Harmath, his knuckle tapping superstitiously on the wooden table. Up on the screen, the number of active users is dropping and the rush is coming to an end.

But the worst is yet to come. This was just the 4th Year registration. In less than an hour, the third years will log-on at 10:00 am, then the second years at 11:00 am.

“But the real tsunami wave comes at noon,” cautions Marilee Keogh, Manager for Technical Services.

“That’s when the first years come online.”

* * *

Over the course of the last six months, a number of initiatives have been undertaken to prepare for the Black Friday slam; some short term and some long term.

In the short term, the EASI/NGSIS team has developed Peak Load Mode ACORN (PLM ACORN) that disables some non-essential functionality (Notifications, Invoice, Financial Awards & Aid information and multiple degree invitations) to improve performance. This new lightweight landing web page presented to students on heavy registration days that has less overhead on the system resources than the regular ACORN dashboard and thus loads faster.

A specialized team within EASI and ITS has also improved load balancing on the ACORN application servers, ensuring the server performance is better shared amongst the multiple servers. Furthermore, they’ve streamlined the login process that speeds up the communications between the different systems involved in authenticating and authorizing a student when accessing ACORN and made a number of important technical changes that improve overall performance in ACORN’s backend systems.

ITS has also set its eyes on the bigger ‘backend’ issue, which is the Mainframe. The University is badly in need of new infrastructure to support the student database. Efforts to replace this back-end system are well underway but such a massive effort in a single year was not even a remote possibility.

* * *

It is 11:35 am. Fourth, Third and Second Year students have all been granted access to their enrolment cart. There are 1728 active users on the ACORN site and beginning to descend.