ACORN enrolment: From ‘Black’ to ‘Grey Friday’

It was a tense day full of careful monitoring, communications and coffee consumption. On August 3, over 35,000 Faculty of Arts & Science students logged in to ACORN during the largest enrolment day for U of T.

The system successfully handled the massive number of logins during the Faculty’s “priority drop” enrolment period. Now, a day that was previously known as “Black Friday,” when the system crashed in 2015 and 2016, has become “Grey Friday”, with more planned improvements to come.

This year’s peak enrolment day became brighter due to the efforts of staff from Information Security and Enterprise Architecture (ISEA), Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions (EIS), and Enterprise Applications and Solutions Integration (EASI) at Information Technology Services.

Let’s take a look at how the day played out:

Pre-Enrolment Preparation

Laurel Williams preparing for the big day

“Look! There’s a squirrel on my coffee just for ACORN. I was up at 5:30 a.m. and decided to pick up my favourite coffee. It’s such a big day that it’s important to stay fueled,” said Laurel Williams, Information Technology Analyst with EASI. “All of the teams involved are critical to this process. I’ve been working on this project for three to four months and each year we enhance our preparation.”

See how how the team holds up under pressure during Grey Friday (video by Alex Dault)

9 a.m. – First Round of Enrolment

Within the first five seconds of enrolment, 1,000 fourth-year students had logged in.

“I would like to be in the same room as the mainframe to see it smoking!” said Williams.

The mainframe, which looks like a giant, black refrigerator, weighs 1,014 kg and has been working hard since 2012.

In November, the Platform Modernization Project will replace the mainframe with faster and more secure Linux servers and a new code base. It will be able to handle 15,000 simultaneous logins compared to the current 700.

“The new platform will be a lot faster – we’ve removed major bottlenecks in the design and we’re expecting a much better experience next year,” said Frank Boshoff, U of T’s Enterprise Architect.

Twenty minutes after students started enrolling, ACORN was back to normal with near instantaneous login.

“It’s great that we’ve cleared the first round with lots of time to spare. This session was easier to handle because there were fewer students applicable to login, but wait until 11 a.m. – when we have our largest round of enrolment,” said Sarosh Jamal, Project Manager/Analyst with EIS.

Part of the team assembled at 215 Huron Street included Frank Boshoff, Sarosh Jamal, Andre Kalamandeen, Gerry Lindo, Paul Day, Laurel Williams, Titus Hsu, Mike Clark, Miki Harmath and Parani Vinayagamoorthy. 

10 a.m. – Second Round

“Wow, we have 3,390 third-year students logged in already at 10 a.m!” said Williams.

By 10:30 a.m. that wave of students had luckily decreased to 1,695, and fifteen minutes later the system had recovered and was ready once again.

While answering students’ questions on Twitter, Facebook and Reddit, Mike Clark, Manager, User Experience & Process Design with EASI, enrolled in his own courses.

“We’ve made more important improvements to ACORN and its underlying infrastructure for this year, and our goal is that the system will perform even better than last year because of those changes,” said Clark. “This day is always a huge load on the system though, so we’ll have to see how things go, especially with ROSI-SWS no longer being around.”

These improvements included optimizing Weblogin to better handle the large volume of login requests, as well as a ‘webload management day’ waiting page where if students tried to log in to ACORN before their scheduled start time, their session would be kept active and prevent Weblogin from having to process repeated login attempts. This further improved the system’s overall performance.

The team also increased the duration and volume of cached registration information in the system to improve performance. And if an individual student made an unusually rapid number  of requests, they would be automatically prompted to prove that they were a human via a “captcha.”

How did these improvements help students?

“Compared to last year, we see that more users are spending a longer time actually logged in the system with fewer logins overall, rather than more time spent attempting to login as in previous years, so that’s a really good sign.” said Jamal. “This year Andre Kalamandeen and the larger developer and test teams helped tune the system so that students enrolled approximately a minute faster.”

Just before the third, and most intense, round of enrolments for second-year students, the team welcomed a surprise visitor.

“I used to have to line up for hours to enrol in classes,” said Bo Wandschneider, U of T’s Chief Information Officer. “Things have really changed since then, and we hope that next year will be even better.”

11 a.m. – Third Round

As expected, the third round of enrolments pushed the system to its limits.

“To prepare for the heaviest loads, we run tests to simulate student logins,” said Williams. “Every time something breaks we try to mitigate the issue.”

The team used live data to monitor the load on the system, as well as its performance

The User Experience & Process Design team was on-hand to assist students, via email and social media support. The team had also produced pre-enrolment information to help set students’ expectations and provide best practices on such a busy day.

Ibraheem Aziz, fourth-year Rotman Commerce student, on U of T’s Instagram giving tips to students on how to use ACORN

“On the morning of, we were online from 8:30am until mid-afternoon responding to urgent student questions, as well as engaging in broader discussions about the overall experience that students had,” said Clark. “This is a critically important day for students and staff. Luckily, we didn’t see any outright crashes this year and came away with an objectively improved system from previous ‘priority drop’ days.”

At 11:26 there were 3,608 active users who needed to clear the system to accommodate the next round at 12 p.m.

“How low can we go? There are a lot of pending enrolments and we have to clear this session before 12 p.m.” said Vik Chadalawada, Senior Manager of Student Information Systems with EASI.

At 11:41 a.m., there were still 2,975 users, but everyone breathed a sigh of relief as the number of active users dropped to 1,688 by 11:53.

12 p.m. – Fourth round

With the nail-biting part of the day over, the fourth round was a breeze.

“Phew! It’s over!” said Williams.

After an intense four hours, the team gathered for a celebratory lunch.

“Way to go everyone! We all worked really hard to make this happen,” said Chadalawada. “We had a plan, we came prepared and it was well executed. We stayed collected as a team throughout the whole process, doing everything we could to mitigate any issues while tackling social media at the same time.  Hopefully the next year will see us evolve from a Grey Friday to a Blue Sky Friday.”

Thank you to everyone on the Grey Friday team, including Client Services Representatives and registrars across the University:
Frank Boshoff
Mike Clark
Paul Day
Zunan Dong
Paul Fardy
Miki Harmath
Matt Hendrickson
Titus Hsu
Sarosh Jamal
Andre Kalamandeen
Gerry Lindo
Jose Parada
Ian Scott
Ted Sikorski
Ken Tsang
Parani Vinayagamoorthy
Matt Wilks
Laurel Williams
Mike Wiseman
Mike Wyers