Preparation for peak enrolment 2021 pays off

Screenshot of the team working remotely on Microsoft Teams

Website and security updates, extensive testing and monitoring – these are just some of the ingredients that led to yet another successful year for U of T’s student enrolment. This massive undertaking involved 15 major enrolment days and culminated in peak enrolment day on July 30.

Similar to previous years, the system handled a large number of logins in ACORN for all enrolment days and the Faculty of Arts & Science “priority removal” enrolment period.

“Leading up to the month-long enrolment period, we test all of our systems and ensure they are able to handle the load. We also work with other groups, including Information Security, the Registrar’s offices, our communications team,” says Laurel Williams, an Information Technology Analyst with Enterprise Applications & Solutions Integration (EASI). “We monitor all of the large enrolment days for U of T’s three campuses to make sure we’re on track and we make improvements on the fly to ensure that everything goes smoothly on peak enrolment day.”

The first round of enrolment at 9 a.m. had a peak of 1,980 students and the second round at 10 a.m. had close to 2,600. The third round had a peak of over 3,300 students and the fourth had over 3,000.

An upgrade to the Student Information Systems completed three years ago, and subsequent improvements, have led to a faster, more reliable system. During the first two minutes of the first enrolment, over 1,500 students had already added over 3,300 courses.

“Since we’ve upgraded to the distributed architecture, we have more computing power at our disposal. On the flip side, there are more systems to monitor,” says Haroon Rafique, DevOps Manager with EASI. “As a result of fine tuning the various components of the architecture, when thousands of students are logging in, the system can easily handle the load and students can enrol in record time.”

On July 30, 20 per cent of all course enrolment transactions that occurred on that day, including course adds, drops and waitlists, were completed within the first minute of each enrolment window; on the same priority removal day back in August 2018, only 1 per cent of enrolments occurred in that first minute. In terms of the number of students, about 40 per cent were able to log in and enroll in the courses they wanted during the first minute in 2021 compared to 3 per cent in 2018.

This year, a significant system improvement included moving the ACORN launchpad, the website leading to the ACORN application, from an on-premises solution to the Azure Cloud.

“During the first few enrolment days this year we closely monitored the launchpad to see how it would deal with multiple simultaneous users. By observing how the launchpad performed during the days leading up to peak enrolment, we could sort out any issues and maximize efficiencies, in advance,” says Rafique.

With this upgrade, the launchpad now has autoscaling capabilities that decrease the hosting costs for U of T. The site can scale up for specific days, allowing for more flexibility compared to a static hosting solution for the site. For many of the larger enrolment days, the launchpad plays a crucial role as it acts as a holding area for students before logging into ACORN.

Beyond testing the ACORN launchpad, the team also tested the ACORN application by simulating thousands of students logging into the system at the same time.

“We use a script to mimic the process of many users logging in, loading the dashboard, adding and dropping a course and logging out,” says Mike Wyers, a Test Coordinator with EASI. “We try to push the system to the max to fix any bottlenecks and make sure our enrolment days run smoothly.”

In addition, the team also ensures the systems are up to date throughout the year.

“We have a renewed focus on security and conduct quarterly outages of our systems to perform necessary updates. It’s not only important for security but we want our systems running at their top performance,” says Rafique.

This year, the upgrades, testing and extensive preparation clearly paid off.

“We realize this is an important time of the year for everyone,” says Williams.” We try to make sure everything is in order well in advance in case there are any issues. We’re pleased that this day was seamless, and we look forward to the same outcome for next year’s enrolment!”