THON technology committee steps up its IT support with Amazon funding

February 20, 2020

As packed as the Bryce Jordan Center is during THON Weekend, the traffic around the big venue is nothing compared to the influx of visitors the organization’s online infrastructure experiences during the 46-hour dance marathon.

It only takes one excited celebrity tweeting about THON to hundreds of thousands of followers to bog down the system.

“Khloe Kardashian always retweets us, or tweets about us and we have no idea when that post will go out,” THON Public Relations Director Dan Mele said. “So, it’s really hard to gauge when the site is going to crash because of the website traffic.”

Thanks to the behind-the-scenes work of THON’s technology committee, hiccups like these will soon be hinderances of the past.

The 22-member group has spent the last year partnering with Penn State Information Technology and Amazon to earn a $19,000-per-year grant from Amazon Web Services (AWS) to help consolidate and improve THON’s technology infrastructure.

Many of those improvements will have been implemented when the 46-hour dance marathon to benefit children and families affected by cancer begins this weekend.

“We don’t get to interact with the families too often, but what the technology committee does is sort of the bedrock for what THON is able to do,” THON Technology Director Dan Herlihy said. “The sites we develop allow THON weekend to happen. Anything that can make those services more stable, more secure, will end up with a better result for those families.”

All in all, THON’s tech committee manages seven websites, most of which are public facing. These include the main landing page, THON’s online storefront and a multimedia site for THON family and event photos, among others.

There are also the behind-the-veil sites like THON’s online event management platform used by all THON volunteers. It must function efficiently to ensure a smooth-running weekend across every facet of the operation.

THON volunteers were first exposed to the improved central dashboard site during the THON Family Carnival in early December. The committee’s lead system administrator John Dukewich called December’s event a “good test run” as Amazon’s Cloud was up to the challenge of keeping the site afloat as web traffic spiked.

“Using AWS provides us the ability to scale indefinitely, so this is a great way to prepare for THON to grow however large it needs to or will,” Dukewich said. “We’ll never be limited by infrastructure anymore. We’ll be able to scale it to suit however many site visitors we get.”

Herlihy and Dukewich said there was a bit of a learning curve working with new resources. They got help from Paul Crum, a cloud architect in Penn State IT’s User Experience group.

Crum made trips to the THON office space in the HUB to help plan and design the infrastructure migrations.

“We’re here to provide guidance and best practices on how you can leverage this stuff without getting a shockingly huge bill at the end of the month if you don’t configure it right,” Crum said. “THON is just one example. We’re helping other departments and we’re here to help along this journey, whatever IT problem you’re trying to solve.”

Before starting the website switchovers, Herlihy and his group were able to design a new delivery system for the volunteer mailing list. They also automated the new committee member application system that was previously done on paper.

Keeping members of the team and THON stakeholders connected has been an ongoing challenge since new students are involved nearly every year.  With different students serving on the tech committee over time, the committee has taken different approaches over the years, and has forced new members to spend time attempting to understand how their predecessors set something up.

Standardizing practices will make it easier for the next crop of aspiring IT professionals to take over the technology committee’s workload.

That shouldn’t be the only appeal for the next generation of students looking to get involved with the IT side of THON.

“It’s a great recruiting tool,” Herlihy said. “You’re in class learning about all these cool technologies and you might be in an internship that may have their infrastructure in the Cloud or Amazon and it’s just another thing we can tell people. ‘Yeah, we’re a student group, but we have funding to actually do this in the Cloud. You’ll be working with AWS developing infrastructure. These are real-world problems and there are real-time solutions that you get to help with.’”

Last Updated February 20, 2020