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'Kicking a goal blindfolded'

At 6am on ANZAC Day, more than 215,000 people played RSL Queensland’s short commemorative service to Light Up the Dawn in honour of our service people, past and present. The Last Post rang out through suburbs and towns throughout Australia. And when the service faded into silence, those people carried on with their day.

But in their Brisbane homes, RSL Queensland’s marketing and IT teams shared a quiet sense of achievement. They had taken on a major challenge, and they had succeeded.

RSL Queensland Chief Information & Strategy Officer Simon Button likens it to being asked to kick a goal, blindfolded, without a ball.

“The challenge was that no one had ever done anything like this before,” Simon says. “We simply had no idea what to expect.”

With traditional ANZAC Day services cancelled, the marketing team had been promoting a virtual service instead. The core elements of a Dawn Service were pre-recorded and Australians were invited to visit the campaign website – rslanzacspirit.com.au – to play the service at 6am on ANZAC Day morning. People were asked to pledge to participate as a way of anticipating demand but, based on social media interest, the team expected there would be far more visitors on the morning than the number of pledges indicated.

How many? No one knew.

Head of IT Operations, Information and Strategy Barrie Russell says the IT team scaled up the server capacity substantially to handle the anticipated traffic.

“Normally two servers run the website. We scaled that out to 90 servers across three data centres. We also developed a mitigation strategy that could be implemented immediately if the website crashed,” Barrie says.

“We knew that this was a one-shot deal. We wouldn’t get a second chance.”

In preparation for ANZAC Day, the team conducted intensive load testing, simulating up to 250,000 users hitting the website simultaneously. They also tested the back-up strategy, taking the website out of action and replacing it with a static page playing the audio recording.

“It all worked seamlessly,” Barrie says. “Despite everything we threw at it during testing, we didn’t break it. The website was still working really, really well.”

While the IT team worked hard to make sure the infrastructure would be able to meet the anticipated demand, the marketing team also did their bit to spread the load. They encouraged people to download the service to play on their own devices and uploaded the audio recording to Facebook so it could be played directly from there.

Simon says the number of visitors to the site spiked on Friday evening, shortly after the television news aired a story on Light Up the Dawn.

“About 145,000 people hit the website on Friday, with the vast majority between 6 and 7 on Friday night. Ninety per cent of that was mobile traffic; people were obviously sitting there watching TV and going to the site to see what it was all about.”

As ready as they could hope to be, six members of the IT team reconvened at 5am in the Microsoft Teams environment to watch and wait.

“To be honest, I was excited,” Barrie says. “I think we were all pretty confident. We knew how hard we’d pushed the infrastructure.”

At 4.50am, there were already 4,000 visitors on the website. Within an hour that had grown to 52,000. And by 6.10am, it was back down to normal.

“More people hit the site in a 24-hour period than in all of 2019,” Simon says.

He credits the strong early collaboration between the marketing and IT teams for the ultimate success of the IT solution.

“We had good visibility early on about the inner thinking behind what they were trying to do and were able to translate that into what was needed from an IT perspective. And we could also see the passion in the marketing team for getting this right, which motivated us to go above and beyond to ensure it was successful."

He reflects that the end result was worth the immense amount of work his team put in to make sure everything came together on the day.

“Talking to my friends, everyone who stood out in their driveway was listening to RSL Queensland’s service. It was our pleasure to be part of something so special.”

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