Equipping Blackboard for 3-3-4

by Francis Chu


Background – CityU’s Unified e-Learning Management System and e-Portal
Since 2005, the University has adopted the Blackboard Academic Suite (Bb) as the unified e-learning management system as well as a platform for the University e-Portal. It is widely used by all CityU members for teaching, learning, announcements, wiki and blog, social learning, integration to booking systems and departmental learning tools. Over the past 7 years, the Bb system has constantly been reviewed and upgraded to support the rapid growth.
With the 3-3-4 academic reform, CityU will fully implement a 4-year undergraduate curriculum in September 2012. There will be additional student intakes and new faculty members for 3-3-4. To ensure the 24x7 availability, stability and performance of this mission critical service, the capacities of Bb infrastructure, hardware and software were assessed by the Blackboard consultants in January 2011 and recommendations had been made to enhance Bb system to sustain the high level of performance for the end users, potentially several thousands more.  
The Capacity Planning Exercise in January 2011
The primary purpose of the capacity planning engagement was to evaluate the configuration and overall health of the Bb system and provide recommendations to better align the environment with the best practices to maintain a fully redundant, highly capable, well maintained and monitored enterprise deployment that serves a tremendous growth for 3-3-4.
The approach to check the health of the system was made up of the following steps. 
  • Technical data collection
  • Analysis of the hardware and software
  • Operational analysis
  • End-user experience analysis
  • Capacity planning recommendations
Based on projected growth rate for existing usages plus the addition from the double cohort, the following recommendations were made.
  1. Increase one application server
  2. Increase the memory of the database server
  3. Increase the content storage
  4. Increase the database storage 
Hardware and Software Upgrade
To enhance Bb’s function and features, Bb was upgraded from 9.1SP1 to 9.1SP6 in August 2011. As recommended by the capacity planning exercise, one more application server was added to the Bb’s application server pool in December 2011. A powerful Sun SPARC T3 with 16 CPU and 64GB memory was added resulting in a total of five application servers for Bb. The database software Oracle was upgraded from 10g to 11gR2 in January 2012. Moreover, the memory of the database server was also greatly increased from 32GB to 80GB. The free file storage and database storage had also been increased to cater for 3-3-4 usages. The hardware and software upgrade had a positive impact on the stability, availability and performance of Bb.
Figure 1 - The Blackboard System Architecture After the Capacity Planning Exercise
The Health Check Exercise in April 2012
The Bb system’s health check engagement has been performed annually since 2007. The health check is carried out by the Blackboard consultants, experts of the Bb system who know the internals well and have rich experience in recommending and assessing Bb in educational and commercial deployments. The health check includes system hardware and software audit, traffic analysis, usage modeling, performance profiling and tuning recommendations. The usage analysis is compared against data from the same period in the past few years.
Figure 2 - CPU Utilization by Application Server Before Hardware and Software Upgrade
Figure 3 - CPU Utilization by Application Server After Hardware and Software Upgrade 
2012 %
Total Hits
2011 %
Total Hits
2010 % Total Hits
> 50s
10 - 50 s
5 - 10 s
1 - 5 s
0 - 1 s
Figure 4 – Blackboard Response Time
Performance Monitoring
The comprehensive monitoring framework in place over the years has served Bb system well. By coupling usage data, response time data, Oracle monitoring, behaviour modelling and resource utilization data, end user experience can be evaluated based on specific load and the effectiveness of the platform can then be measured.
The types of monitoring are:
  • System data such as the CPU, memory and disk usage of the application servers and database server are collected in 5 minutes intervals throughout the year.
  • Web status report (Apache Server Status) for the application servers are collected in 5 minutes intervals.
  • Web status and Tomcat status are checked for all 5 application servers in 15 minutes intervals. Email alert will be sent to system administrators if the status is abnormal.
  • The Bb daily login count report is generated in 10 minutes intervals. Hourly login count is monitored and email alert will be sent to system administrators if the hourly login count is over 2500.
  • Oracle system data is collected every hour for generating reports.
Business Continuity Plan of the Blackboard
Unavailability of the Bb System will have great impact on the e-learning services provided to staff and students. Therefore, a well designed Business Continuity Plan is available in order to keep the mission critical services running during unforeseeable prolonged service outages.
In case of a prolonged service outage, the Crisis Management Team (CMT) as defined in the Business Continuity Plan for IT Systems will examine and access the impact of failure, and activate the business continuity plan of “Blackboard for e-Learning” in the Office of Chief Information Officer (OCIO) where necessary. The business continuity plan defines the actions to be taken by the Computing Services Centre (CSC), e-Learning Team, departments, teaching staff and students. Annual drill prepares key members of the e-Learning team to support the alternative systems. Staff members are introduced to the business continuity plan for IT systems whenever there are staff movements of those key members. Assessment will be carried out annually to update features and to improve functions of the alternative e-learning tools to Blackboard.
As recommended by the capacity planning report, significant changes have been made to the Bb system’s hardware and software configuration. Two major changes stand out among the rest. Firstly, a new and more powerful application server SPARC T3 with 64GB memory has been added into the environment. Secondly, the Oracle database server has been upgraded to 11gR2 and its memory increased from 16GB to 80GB. These changes have led to a better database performance and thus further improved the overall Blackboard system performance.
After the hardware and software upgrade of the Bb system, it now runs on high availability architecture with enterprise level system administration and monitoring. It is unquestionably well equipped for the 3-3-4 academic reform.