EF, known worldwide for its English-language lessons, is a private company specializing in language learning, educational travel, and academic degree programs. EF has brought English training to every corner of the world and is growing rapidly worldwide thanks to its fully digitalized support platforms, innovative learning systems, highly integrated and customized teaching materials, strong foreign teaching staff (who hold international certificates of qualification), modernized English learning environment with convenient locations, as well as overseas learning opportunities. In 2016, EF became the official language training supplier of the Rio Olympics.
Globalization has highlighted the importance of English language education. Since its founding in Lund, Sweden in 1965, EF has built a name for itself in the industry, expanding its businesses to 116 countries and regions and boosting 46,500 employees across North America, South America, Europe, and Greater China. To support a business of this scale, EF’s IT division developed an elaborate core business application system that has been in use since the early years of the company. This system comprised a number of modules covering customer relationship management, school operation and management, resource and planning management, business intelligence platform, media applications, sales management, and digital content management, etc., designed variously for the management, front-line sales staff, teachers, and academies.
As robust as this system was, with the meteoric rise of internet technologies and online education in recent years, EF’s IT team started to face mounting challenges in both maintaining the internal IT system and responding swiftly to the changing needs of business teams and students. EF realized that IT was no longer only about maintaining and supporting various internal and external infrastructures, hardware and software, rather, it should enable the IT division and business division to work more closely together to tap deep into the innovative power and potentials of digital platforms. For example, it should allow the business team and IT team to co-develop a wider range of online learning products and mobile applications to improve the learning efficiency of students.
For the longest time, EF was relying on local, self-built data centers which were maintained and managed by the headquarters. These data centers were deployed in countries like the U.S., UK, and China to support local and nearby staff and students. With the fast-expanding businesses and learning needs, however, the inherent limitations of such a local-based setup became increasingly apparent. For one, these on-premises data centers did not have adequate disaster recovery capabilities; one data or system fault could disrupt core services and erode the user experience. And second, they had limited on-demand scalability in terms of their computing resources, storage capacity, and network bandwidth. At the same time, competition in the English-language education market was heating up from the influx of internet start-ups. It was clear to EF, then, that it needed to hasten its digital transformation so that it could more adroitly answer the challenges from its web-based competitors. “Last year, we saw an over 170% increase in number of students, and our business divisions wanted to launch more education products and services, both driving up the demand for IT resources,” says Tsui, CTO at EF. “But these launches were often held back by the limited IT resources at our data centers, and new servers would frequently take more than three weeks to arrive. While the IT team would like to respond faster to shifting business and market demands, it was shackled by our hardware.”
“We are constantly exploring the latest technologies to see how they can help us improve the quality of services, reduce the response time and personnel cost of maintenance tasks, more accurately estimate our computing resource needs, and conduct accelerated proof-of-concept and development testing for emerging business trends and new applications,” says Tsui, “The mission of our IT division is to increase the value output of our organization through digital approaches, and cloud platform aligns well with this mission. Cloud enables our core businesses such as online courses to break free from their reliance on hardware and become highly scalable to accommodate changing demands. This not only gives our students a smooth learning experience, but also allows our IT team to shift their focus from low-level maintenance to business and corporate strategies.”
Why Amazon Web Services
After EF made its strategic decision to migrate from on-premises data centers to the cloud, the first thing it needed to consider was how to choose a cloud service provider that could support multiple business regions and worldwide growth. “We had to be cautious in choosing a cloud service provider that could best support our global business. One of our main considerations was whether the service provider had a unified platform internationally, superior cloud technologies, and the ability to deliver sophisticated, proven services,” says Tsui. To make that choice, EF carefully compared the mainstream cloud service providers on the market, assessing their stability, maturity, flexibility, and technical support in view of its own service offerings and its needs and usage scenarios in various countries and regions. Through this comprehensive assessment process, in-depth discussion of technical and financial details, and proof-of-concept testing, EF finally settled on Amazon Web Services.EF believes that AWS is a perfect match for its needs, as the latter’s 44 Availability Zones in 16 geographical regions around the world would allow EF’s IT team to run enterprise business applications from the cloud with higher availability levels. More important, AWS also fully aligns with EF’s goal of achieving serverless computing. With AWS’ quality cloud services, EF can continue to develop innovative products based on big data, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, without needing additional hardware investments for these new technologies.
In 2016, EF began to gradually migrate its core business applications – customer relationship management system, school operation and management system, resource and planning management system, business intelligence platform, media applications, sales management, and digital content management – from on-premises data centers to the AWS cloud platform. Given the ease with which AWS can be used and managed, EF’s IT team became technically proficient in performing the cloud migration after a brief training, and was able to rapidly build the company’s IT environment on AWS. For the migration, the team used AWS CloudFormation to create resources on the cloud in a fast, organized manner; architecture of the target resources can also be defined and adjusted when and as required during the migration process. It didn’t take EF long to complete its first migration project, and its North American data center was also successfully migrated to the AWS Singapore Region and AWS Tokyo Region. And in China, EF chose to migrate all its business applications previously hosted in Shanghai data center to AWS Beijing Region operated by Sinnet. EF hoped that by making the most out of the superior networks of these key cities, users around the world could enjoy efficient, low-latency access to its core business applications. With the help of technical teams from AWS and the AWS Partner Network, EF achieved interconnection between its AWS regions and its Amazon Virtual Private Cloud (Amazon VPC) networks using AWS Direct Connect, enabling efficient data synchronization as well as remote disaster recovery for core business application data. Figure 1 illustrates EF’s system architecture.
Figure 1: EF System Architecture on AWS
For EF, successfully migrating its original core business system to AWS has paved the way for an easier, faster digital transformation of its entire education business. The rich selection of PaaS services from AWS, such as the Amazon Relational Database Service (Amazon RDS) which supports multiple database engines, allows EF to rapidly develop and optimize products tailored for internet-based English lessons, shortening their lead times. Furthermore, these PaaS also empower EF to create more real-time interactive educational applications. For instance, AWS digital media solutions can be used to store and distribute courseware for the English lessons, allowing students to access them live or on demand via apps or web browsers.
EF’s development team has also begun to use AWS Lambda to implement a serverless application architecture that allows the company’s business platform to break away from its dependence on traditional servers. “With AWS cloud services, applications that previously would take two to three weeks to deploy can now be launched in two to three days,” says Tsui. “Moving away from the traditional server and virtual machine-based deployment model has lightened our maintenance workload and produced significant software licensing savings.”
The migration of its business platform to AWS has brought EF many benefits:
First, its underlying IT architecture is now more flexible. Compared with traditional on-premises data centers, AWS requires much less time for setting up a business IT infrastructure and enables organizations to easily and rapidly scale their resources without being fettered by hardware configurations. “We can finish auto-scaling in a few minutes according to our business needs. This not only makes us a more agile business and gives our users better experience, it also allows us to calculate and control the precise amount of resources and expenditure and thus reduce unnecessary expenses,” says Tsui. “Take the biggest Auto Scaling group we are using for example: we need 8 instances to keep our businesses running for the 2-hour peak demand period but only 2 instances during leisure hours. This kind of flexibility has reduced our server cost by more than 60%.”
Second, by developing native cloud applications on AWS, EF is now able to respond faster to the market and accelerate its digital transformation. “In the past, we usually built applications using traditional technologies, but now we can accomplish the same and offer new user experiences more quickly using a wide range of AWS services and features such as Amazon DynamoDB, Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2), Amazon EC2 Container Service (Amazon ECS) and AWS Lambda,” says Tsui. “AWS has streamlined and expanded our DevOps practices, and its high-quality services and support have helped improve our business agility.”
Finally, with the continuous stream of product innovations and cloud strategies from AWS, EF is now moving closer to its goal of a serverless architecture for all its platforms. “We hope all our future applications can be built on a serverless architecture and run more efficiently through AWS Lambda. A loosely coupled architecture will make our business more flexible and more agile; our cost accounting and ROI assessment will also be more accurate,” says Tsui, “Going forward, our IT team will focus more on business innovation and sustainable growth, leaving the complex underlying maintenance works to the back-end specialists of our service providers. In sum, AWS services are now harmonized with our IT vision – that’s the advantages of cloud technologies.”
EF believes that education will gravitate toward personal attention and individualized teaching. Committed to delivering a great English learning experience to each and every student, EF has made big data and artificial intelligence two important focuses of its digital transformation. The company will build its own big data platform using the NoSQL database service from DynamoDB and Amazon Redshift data warehouses, perform deep analytics with AWS Machine Learning, and take advantage of the innovative AI technologies from AWS to provide better services to its employees and students as well as a next-generation, personalized English learning experience that enables greater learning efficiency.
“We were extremely careful in choosing a cloud service provider that could help us grow our global businesses. One of our key considerations was whether the service provider had superior cloud technologies and could offer sophisticated, proven, and uniform services worldwide. AWS hits a home run on all these points, enabling us to better run our global enterprise-level business applications and accelerate our digital transformation.”
Andrew Tsui, EF CTO