This week, some students will have had difficulty in connecting to the Portal between 09:00 and 09:35 on the morning of Wednesday 1st May when module registration for the autumn semester opened.
When module registration first goes live, there is an enormous peak in the number of people trying to connect so the connection pool for the portal is very quickly exhausted, resulting in lots of people being unable to login until somebody else logs out. We are often asked why we don’t do something to prevent this happening. Suggestions from students include: get a better system; make the Portal work; get different years to pick their modules at different times etc. The first two points relate to the technical infrastructure whilst the final point looks at the business logic.
Extensive technical measures have been put in place to help increase Portal stability and availability however we are fully aware that more can be done. Below summarises why for business reasons module registration takes place in the way that it does.
On the suggestion of staggering opening times of module selection for different years/groups, Student Administration have advised that, whilst that might work in a university with more constrained choices, it would be less effective for Stirling because our degree programmes are so flexible, and so different groups of students will take the same modules. So, for example:
- If we opened up registration for 4th year before 3rd year, the 3rd year students would be disadvantaged, as the 4th years would get first pick of the capped level 10 modules;
- Similarly, both 2nd and 3rd years take level 9 modules, and both 1st and 2nd years take level 8 – so the years can’t be split without someone losing out;
- If we opened up registration for, say, single Honours in a subject before combined Honours, the combined Honours students would feel disadvantaged;
- We have around 100 combined Honours programmes, and each subject combines with several others, which means that splitting into subject groups in a way that disadvantages no-one is effectively impossible.
The key difficulty is that in some academic areas, the number of places on each module is very limited, which generates a peak of demand as soon as module registration opens. The majority of students who are anxious to register very early on day one are looking to take one or more of these restricted modules, and so are from the same subset of programmes. A proposal will be put to the Education and Student Experience Committee to reduce the capping of modules so that this pressure is removed – essentially meaning that students would not feel they have to register in the first hour to get the modules they want to take.
On the issue of the system/making the Portal work better:
The Portal acts as a gatekeeper for the underlying student database, and manages the number of connections so as not to cause the database or the database server to fail and thereby lose data. The student database server is due for replacement and this has been scheduled for summer 2013. This should allow IS to increase the number of connections which can be managed concurrently.
IS carefully monitors the status of the Portal and the student database during module registration. While it may have appeared that the portal was unavailable immediately after 9am, there were 877 students undertaking and completing module registration in the first hour. By 09.35 performance had returned to normal – ie the massive increase in connection requests had returned to a more normal level.
- It is worth noting that on a typical Wednesday morning between 9am and 10am the student database handles around 2500 transactions per hour, on 1.5.2013 between 9am and 10am the system handled 111700 student system transactions, which is a 43x increase on usual morning workload for the database.
As well as monitoring the Portal, IS notifies all staff ahead of the big day and asks them not to use the Portal for other purposes so as to maximise the available connections for our students.
Hopefully, the combination of requesting capped modules to be reduced; minimising Portal use for other purposes on module registration day along with a new, more powerful database server will address the concerns for next time.