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COVID-19: Emergency situations, rapid solutions

Around the world, government websites are straining under the load of unprecedented traffic caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some agencies are receiving forty or even fifty times their normal traffic volume. Many sites are only up intermittently.

Nevertheless, a few agencies have quickly adapted. Even during these exceptional circumstances, their web applications are successfully serving their customers. 

Furthermore, they are doing this while still maintaining robust web security. (Security is still a vital requirement today—even during the pandemic, cyberattacks are still frequent. In fact, many hackers are exploiting the crisis for their own purposes.)

How did these agencies accomplish this? Two examples from Israel are especially illustrative: the national government’s Employment Service, and its Ministry of Education.

600,000 people abruptly thrown out of work

COVID-19 is wreaking havoc throughout the world’s economies. In Israel, more than a half-million people were thrown out of work in only three weeks.

The national Employment Service has been overwhelmed with claims for unemployment benefits. In normal times, the Service receives about 25,000 new unemployment registrants per month. But just since the beginning of March, 600,000 people (almost 14 percent of the entire working population) have registered. And while this was happening, the agency’s IT staff were also implementing a new “sign up for benefits remotely” service, which added additional strain.

The Service’s website was not designed to handle this crushing workload. On March 18, the Service’s site was inundated with 66,000 visits in just 12 hours. At that point, the agency’s web application finally crashed.

The Employment Service uses the Reblaze platform for its web security. (Reblaze runs in the cloud, and blocks hostile traffic before it can reach the protected web applications.) When the Service’s site failed, IT staff from both organizations kicked immediately into emergency-response mode, to drastically expand the site’s capacity while not compromising security. 

As the Employment Service doubled its number of application instances, Reblaze tripled the allocation of cloud resources, while also adding support for the new applications and APIs. This ensured that the high volumes of traffic could be serviced efficiently, while still maintaining continuous security and protection against cyberattacks.

The site was quickly brought online again. Today, it is comfortably handling an average of about 6,000 submissions per hour, with a substantial amount of unused extra capacity for overhead and future expansion. (The Employment Service expects the number of unemployed people to rise above one million.) 

While all this was happening at the Employment Service, a rather different situation had arisen for the Ministry of Education. 

1.4 million students suddenly cut off from their classrooms

On March 12, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu abruptly reversed a decision from the previous day, and announced the immediate closure of Israel’s school system. Almost 1.5 million students—from elementary students up through university level—were forbidden to attend classes, and had to stay home instead. 

The implications were dire. Not only were students suddenly forced to stay home (with parents who were also restricted, and were trying to work from home), but the indefinite closure could mean the cancellation of the remainder of the school year, potentially including the graduations of over 150,000 high school and university seniors.    

Officials at the Education Ministry immediately scrambled to create a complete alternative national education system. This required an instant and massive initiative to move all schoolwork to online platforms. Lessons and curricula from all schools, at all levels, had to be moved online simultaneously. The Ministry even rented 24 recording studios to record teachers for live online classes. Many teachers also schedule daily Zoom meetings with their students. 

Within a matter of days, the Education Ministry’s web traffic soared to dozens of times its previous amount, far above its designed capacity. Ironically, the site had been load-tested just one week earlier; suddenly, the daily incoming traffic was double the size of the load test. The Ministry’s web applications began to falter.

For years, Reblaze has been the web security provider for the Ministry of Education. When traffic levels leaped upward and Ministry personnel reached out for help, Reblaze was ready. Three Reblaze teams were quickly mobilized to help the Ministry: operations, support and SOC, all working together with Ministry staff.

This situation was considerably more complicated than that of the Employment Service. Ultimately there were three separate issues that needed to be resolved: 

  • Reblaze was scaled up (its instances were enlarged). This was quick and straightforward.
  • The Ministry of Education runs its own VMWare datacenter, which turned out to have insufficient resources to handle the massive volumes of traffic. This was solved by migrating to a new platform.
  • Even after these steps were taken, there were still some performance issues. The Reblaze team helped the Ministry identify an issue with bandwidth capacity, which was resolved at the hosting provider.

Due to this complexity, it took some time to correctly scale the Ministry’s web resources. The Reblaze teams worked around the clock with Ministry employees, diagnosing and solving one issue after the other, until everything was working smoothly.

Today, the Ministry of Education’s web resources are capably handling an unprecedented situation: 100 percent of students are being served at home! 

Lessons Learned

These two agencies had similar problems (an overwhelming volume of incoming traffic), which required different solutions (cloud resource deployment versus datacenter expansion and migration), but ultimately ended in the same outcome: success!

There are several lessons to be learned from these examples. The first is that business and technological challenges will often occur when they are unexpected, and indeed, when they are very unwelcome. Despite the distraction and fear caused by the pandemic, and the difficulties that it causes in daily life, executives must still be prepared to marshal resources quickly to solve problems when they arise.

The second is that cloud technologies make problem-solving much easier. The Employment Service had a much easier time resolving its situation than the Ministry of Education did. When an organization has moved some or even all of its applications to the cloud, then when a crisis occurs, additional resources can be deployed and available online in a matter of minutes. This is especially important for maintaining cloud-native security.

Furthermore, all the work can be done remotely, which is another important consideration in a time when public travel is being restricted. (Also, Reblaze is a fully managed solution. Its customers don’t need to do any work, because their security platforms are managed for them by Reblaze personnel.) Compare this to a physical data center, which requires physical intervention; this is always slower, and usually much more expensive, to perform.

The third lesson is one of encouragement. Even when massive societal shifts happen within a matter of days, it’s possible to adjust and adapt. 

Today, students are being educated, unemployed people are filing for benefits, and other challenges are being met as well. Even during a global pandemic, life can go on.

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