Desire2Learn (D2L) is a software company that makes learning experiences better. The company’s cloud-based platform, Brightspace, is designed to be easy to use, flexible, and smart. With Brightspace, organizations can personalize the experience for every learner to deliver real results. The company’s platform predicts learner performance so organizations can take action in real time to keep learners on track. Brightspace is used by learners in higher education, K-12, and the enterprise sector, including the Fortune 1000. D2L has operations in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, Brazil, and Singapore.
One of the biggest challenges facing D2L is ensuring high availability for its Brightspace application. “We reach millions of students, and when the application is offline, it’s almost like the school doors are locked and students can’t get in,” says Nick Oddson, the company’s senior vice president of engineering. “All our applications need to be accessible and working 24/7.” In addition, D2L must support seasonal application usage peaks. “During the school year, we have millions of users and hundreds of thousands of database queries on our system. We need to support that, while also scaling down for lower offseason traffic.”
D2L also faces challenges around data privacy. “As a global company, we need to stay on top of different regulations for student-data protection in all the countries we’re in,” Oddson says. “That gets difficult because the regulations change and there are nuances in different regions.”
To stay innovative, the organization needs the agility to create and deliver new application features and educational tools to meet customer demand. “Our goal is to transform education, which is all about engaging better with students and helping teachers deliver instruction more effectively,” says Oddson. “To do that, we have to be able to experiment and quickly try out new features before deploying them.”
Why Amazon Web Services
Although D2L originally hosted its applications in a data center, the company decided to migrate to the cloud several years ago. “As we thought about our needs for availability, security, and agility, the cloud seemed like the best choice,” says Oddson. “Once we made that decision, we had to consider what the best cloud technology was.” For D2L, the answer was Amazon Web Services (AWS). “AWS has been in the cloud industry the longest, and it has the most mature and developer-friendly environment,” he says.
D2L runs its Brightspace platform and dozens of other learning applications on hundreds of Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) instances. To store all its application data, the organization uses Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) buckets.
D2L takes advantage of Amazon Elasticsearch Service for searching and querying data, and relies on Amazon CloudFront as its global content delivery network (CDN) for all applications. In addition, the company utilizes Elastic Load Balancing for automatic distribution of incoming application traffic and Auto Scaling for automated scaling of instances up or down. “Using services like Elastic Load Balancing and Auto Scaling, we have a seamless way to automatically control availability and compute scalability,” says Oddson.
Relying on AWS, D2L can provide high availability for its educational applications throughout the world. “Education is always on. Our applications need to be there for millions of students and teachers whenever they need them,” says Oddson. “AWS helps us ensure high availability and resiliency, so learning can take place at all times.”
D2L also has the ability to scale Brightspace and its other applications up or down, depending on the time of year. “Using AWS, we only need to be concerned about the compute cycles we actually use, as opposed to provisioning for peak loads and having idle systems during the months school is not in session,” says Oddson.
The company can also meet its data-security requirements by taking advantage of the cloud. “With AWS, we get a world-class system for security and data privacy,” says Oddson. “Our platform can be consistent worldwide—there are no difference in security levels—because AWS provides us with tools, best practices, and recommendations that can cover all our security needs. Using these tools, we can implement security at the level our customers need.”
D2L now has the agility to innovate faster. “Experimentation is very important in software, especially educational software,” says Oddson. “Using AWS, we can spin up dev and test environments in minutes, instead of the weeks it would take to set up infrastructure before. As a result, we can try new things faster and with far less money and effort.” For instance, a D2L product team recently wanted to focus on delivering a more robust student experience by creating a new tool that students could use to schedule and manage courses. “We built that tool very quickly, and we were able to deploy it and get feedback from users within weeks,” he says. “It’s very easy for us to innovate and develop new tools like this in the cloud. And when we find things that work, we can scale them very easily and quickly on AWS. It really transforms what we can do.”
With the ability to more quickly develop and test new application features, D2L can focus on better serving the education industry. Oddson says, “By innovating faster using AWS, we can build better software for our customers, so they can do what they care most about: transforming the learning experience.”
“By innovating faster using AWS, we can build better software for our customers, so they can do what they care most about: transforming the learning experience.”
Nick Oddson, Senior Vice President of Engineering