Case Study: Pearson Manages Digital Learning in the Cloud with RightScale


If you could simplify new product development, give all of your developers test instances almost immediately, shorten your sales cycle and manage the entire process in the cloud from a single platform, wouldn’t you? Pearson Digital Learning did. And they even got their sales team cheering.



The Challenges

Pearson’s curriculum and courseware have an excellent reputation among educators and students. The company has strong development and operational teams supporting the product. Its sales organization knows that as soon as prospects can get their hands on the product, they want it.

So what prompted Pearson to put their product in the cloud and manage it there?

Better test environments for developers – To test their code, Pearson developers used physical and virtual machines, specifying flavors and versions of the operating system, web server, database, SuccessMaker and other needed applications. Whether they sent a request via e-mail to the Operations team or built the test environment themselves, it still took a day or two to gain access to a test machine. Besides the long delay, there was no guarantee that the test instance would match the production environment that live customers were using. Pearson looked to the cloud for speedier, more reliable alternatives.

Smoother deployment model for customers – Pearson’s long-standing model had been to install SuccessMaker in the data center of the school or district. But with school budgets tight and IT staff already stretched thin, the normally straightforward process of getting the software onto a server had become a big obstacle. Pearson explored the option of hosting SuccessMaker in its own data center. But since the current architecture would require them to buy, deploy and manage a separate server for each customer, it became impractical. This option required too many resources and large capital expenditure.

Faster on-boarding for customers – Pearson has always gone to great lengths to ensure that their program will run as promised, but the on-boarding process took a matter of weeks because of the need to install and run software in each school’s data center. Even demonstrations and pilots took a long time to prepare, slowing down the sales process.

The RightScale Solution

“I looked at these needs and thought, ‘We have to put all of this in the cloud,’” says Andy West, Director of Architecture at Pearson Digital Learning. “But that’s really the easy part. You feel good about lighting up an instance and getting something running in AWS (Amazon Web Services) in ten minutes, but when you start to think about the number of people you’re going to need to maintain operational control and manage dozens or hundreds of instances, the reality sets in. I’d had my eye on RightScale, and it mapped to my idea of how we should do things.”

Big Improvements for Developers...
West tapped a handful of his top engineers to move SuccessMaker to the cloud, using the RightScale Cloud Management Platform to build, store and manage ServerTemplates for their deployment definitions. Everyone on the team now has direct access to servers and storage in the cloud as if they were hosting the resources themselves. In fact, they now have more flexibility with their deployment models in RightScale than in the company’s own data center, simply because of how quickly and easily they can spin up as many test instances as they need, without physical hardware limitations or scheduling requirements.

With a mouse click in the RightScale dashboard, Pearson developers can create multiple server environments in the cloud from ServerTemplates by cloning production deployments for testing. RightScale also allows them to make modifications at the deployment level to create separate testing environments that may be needed.

“It’s entirely based on ServerTemplates now,” continues West. “At the push of a button, we can launch any of our pre-configured servers and test any build of our software. It’s so powerful and efficient, and we’re seeing huge savings in the amount of time it takes our developers to get their hands on a pre-configured server and test on it. Our ability to test software before a pilot is critical, so using RightScale’s management methodology has saved a lot of time. Because it’s a self-service model, nobody has to wait any more: you define what you want, you click a few buttons, and RightScale launches what is needed.”

All SuccessMaker developers can spin up their own instances, and test their code in a deployed environment, which they need to do quite often. Using ServerTemplates has also led to a dramatic difference in testing. The 100% consistency between test and production systems assures developers that they are seeing the same thing real-world users will see and gives them more confidence in the accuracy of their results.

...and a Much Shorter Sales Cycle
Pearson announced the availability of SuccessMaker at a sales conference and within a matter of weeks, the sales team had a significant number of new customers either purchasing licenses or starting pilot programs. Without the bottlenecks of having to get into the school’s data center and troubleshoot the implementation with school districts’ small IT staffs, Pearson can get its digital learning content in front of much larger audiences much faster. They can also be sure that everybody sees the same version of the product at any given time.

“The ability to spin up a pilot and get an entire school on a test quickly has really shortened our sales cycle,” West concludes. “These are schools with 30 to 70 workstations in a lab, where teachers cycle students in and out all day long. We can handle over a dozen of these cases at a time now, and we’re going to see that number grow because RightScale makes it so easy for us to manage it outside of the customer’s data center.

“When we announced at the conference that our new cloud-based product would allow us to on-board a customer in less than a week, our salespeople were ecstatic. They applauded! Using RightScale to manage our deployments we were able to confidently deliver on this message.”

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