Cengage: Changing how students learn, millions of logins at a time
months to deployment
logins per minute
of student and educators provided better learning experiences
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- Changing times, updated school supplies
- A trusted partner for educators and students
- Choosing buy over build
- Integrating with the Okta ecosystem
- Building for better education
Cengage began over 100 years ago as a publisher of traditional school books— in the past decade, the company has transformed to meet modern educational demands. Now one of the largest US-based education and technology organizations, Cengage offers a wide range of digital learning resources. Student engagement has increased, outcomes have improved, and the cost of learning materials has dropped.
Students and teachers rely on Cengage products, and they expect all resources to be available at all times. Downtime is not an option: if Cengage has a technical glitch, students cannot complete assignments and some classes are disrupted. On Sunday nights, Cengage sees huge traffic spikes when millions of students log in to complete assignments.
Cengage recognized it was too expensive and time-consuming to build and maintain a platform that could scale exponentially, perform consistently at a high standard, offer secure access to students and employees, and protect personal data. The company looked to the marketplace; only the Okta Identity Cloud could meet all its criteria.
Cengage engineers worked side by side with the Okta team for five months to plan, build, and test a prototype platform that could handle hundreds of thousands of logins at once. Come September, the spike in student activations went by without a hitch, experiencing up to 250,000 logins per minute.
Working with Okta means that Cengage no longer has to focus its in-house development and software resources on security and identity concerns. Those tasks are left to Okta’s expertise, while Cengage focuses on building better student experiences and innovative learning resources.
Scalable and secure online learning
Cengage began over 100 years ago as a publisher of traditional school books— in the past decade, the company has transformed to meet modern educational demands. Cengage recognized it was too expensive and time-consuming to build and maintain an identity platform that could scale exponentially, perform consistently at a high standard, offer secure access to students and employees, and protect personal data. The company looked to Okta Identity Cloud to provide a secure, seamless experience.
“Our core value and mission is to increase enrollment and increase the number of students that are graduating from school. Security, performance, identity, those are expected—but they’re not our mission. We needed a partner we could trust to take care of those important details.”
George Moore, Chief Technology Officer for Cengage
- Improved student engagement and outcomes
- Reliable, innovative educational resources
- Freedom to build and launch new experiences faster
- Ability to scale quickly with no loss in performance
- Increased data security
- Secure access for remote employees
- Lower cost of ownership
Digital transformation for accessible education, improved outcomes
Cengage began over 100 years ago as a publisher of traditional schoolbooks. But times change, and so did Cengage. Today, the company is the largest US-based education and technology organization, offering a wide range of digital solutions globally for grade school, post-secondary, and continuing education—textbooks by subscription, distance learning courses, online databases, at-home quizzes, and test preparation materials.
It’s been a huge and ultimately successful reinvention for Cengage, driven by necessity—seven years ago, the company emerged from bankruptcy, determined to reposition itself as a software company for the education sector.
“We were a great business that struggled to make it into the digital age,” says George Moore, chief technology officer for Cengage. Students were buying used books, acquiring PDF copies, pirating online resources, or just not bothering with textbooks at all. Prices went up as demand went down. That hurt the company’s revenue; it also negatively impacted student success rates.
“We knew we needed to lower prices,” says Moore. “But we also knew that the way we engage with education had to change. How do we transform into a technology company? How do we meet our customers where they are, drive affordability, and create more engaging learning experiences?”
Offering an online subscription was one way: instead of a $250 textbook, students can pay less than half of that for Cengage Unlimited – a first of its kind subscription service for textbooks and course materials that gives access to the complete Cengage library of books and study aids. The take-up has been huge: currently, about 80% of revenue comes from digital products (compared to 10% in 2013); millions of students and teachers across the country and beyond use Cengage online products.
Performance and reliability, scaled to millions of students
As part of its transformation from 100-year-old publishing house to modern cloud-based software company, Cengage now has a large software engineering team, product development team, and a traditional IT team that runs Cengage’s warehouses and business processes. Their overall priorities are reliability and performance—Cengage needed to earn the trust of educators and students through consistent, stable performance.
“Students and professors can't work around our maintenance schedules or technical glitches,” says Moore. “It's expected that just like a dial tone, we have to always be on.”
That becomes a particular challenge during huge traffic spikes. Cengage needed to ensure its platform could scale to meet the needs of millions of students at once, and maintain performance standards. “About 20 million students are currently enrolled in college and the majority of them are Cengage customers in one way or another,” says Moore. “On any typical Sunday night we'll have 3 to 4 million students rushing to get their homework done.” Downtime is not an option.
“We have devoted tremendous resources to meeting the expectations of millions of students waiting until the night before to do their homework,” Moore says. “We've been growing at about 20 to 25% a year in student activations—keeping up with that demand has been a huge effort.”
Security to protect students—and prevent pirates
Managing security needs has been equally challenging. Cengage has to meet its internal security requirements to protect its intellectual property against piracy and content sharing. At the same time, the company wants to avoid causing friction for students who are accessing the technology legitimately.
“Blending those two use cases is complicated,” says Moore. “We have to make sure that we make it difficult for you to steal from us. But if you're trying to do your homework and you want to have your iPad, your iPhone, and your computer going at the same time, we need to recognize that.”
The combination of these factors—being able to scale effectively in the face of substantial growth while maintaining strict performance, security, and identity standards—led Cengage to look for an identity and access management partner.
“We want to focus on creating really engaging learning experiences. Our core value and mission is to increase enrollment and increase the number of students that are graduating from school,” says Moore. “Security, performance, identity, those are expected—but they’re not our mission. We needed a partner we could trust to take care of those important details.”
Finding the flexibility to scale exponentially
Over the years, technology systems at Cengage evolved without a clear direction. “Our system was a collection of systems,” Moore says. The company invested in building a single homegrown technology platform that could handle exponential growth—and then realized the magnitude of the task.
“We couldn’t just build something and forget about it. It was clearly going to need to be continually evolved as we go forward,” Moore says. “Just keeping up with the growing number of students, with the constant cyber threats, was going to be a significant amount of work, which would decrease the value we could provide to students.”
Moore and his team weighed the pros and cons of “build versus buy.” If Cengage was going to buy a single platform to manage all teaching and learning resources, it needed to be from a security and identity provider that could scale significantly, deal with massive traffic spikes, and guarantee stable performance.
Most solutions in the marketplace were not equipped to meet these criteria. The Okta Identity Cloud could. “The only company that we felt confident with, in terms of developing a partnership, getting the engineering team in, and building prototypes so that we could meet that scale, was Okta,” Moore says. “They were a clear leader inthe space.”
Cengage planned to use Adaptive Multi-Factor Identification (MFA) for secure access to its portal. Okta also offers DynamicScale, which supports traffic bursts up to 500,000 authentications per minute. And with its partnership with AWS, Okta could seamlessly work with Cengage’s AWS cloud platform.
Meeting stringent performance standards
Once the decision to partner with Okta was made, the planning began. Okta’s Customer First team worked side by side with Cengage engineers to build and test a prototype platform.
Performance testing was ongoing throughout deployment. “Our performance environments are very stringent and we test all of our products at two or three times the maximum volume that we expect. Our volume is very spiky; we don't know when students are going to come in, so we can't use industry standard scaling metrics,” says Moore. Given the growth of Cengage’s customer base, those top numbers compound on a regular basis.
“When we brought Okta in, we multiplied our peak logins by three, and then we soak tested that for hours throughout that group, assuming that peak was going to go on and on and on.” Soak testing ensured the system would be stable over an extended period of time.
Ensuring data security during a massive migration
User migration was another large task. About 5 million freshmen start college every September, the majority of which will be Cengage customers. Other students take time off from school and then return, and Cengage needs to ensure their accounts are available for reactivation.
“We migrated tens of millions of students into the Okta environment,” says Moore. “We made sure that all the old accounts would still be there.” Moore wanted the transition to be seamless, and invisible to the students. “It was a behind-the scenes switch. For the students, there was no change,” he says.
Safeguarding the trust of all customers was top of mind. Cengage stores the email addresses and personal information of every customer; this was all migrated to Okta’s system. “Security is not our expertise; we focus on learning,” says Moore. “For Okta, security is job number one. The kinds of rigor and processes they put around making sure they secure that information is bar none.”
Five months to a successful launch
A strong partnership developed between Okta and Cengage, which facilitated an efficient development and deployment process. “Our engineers love working with Okta’s product, and Okta spent time building prototypes with our team,” Moore says. ”In addition to working with the product, working with the people at Okta has been great.”
“The integration of Okta into our ecosystem didn't take very long, only about five months from beginning through migration to getting the system into production,” he says.
As implementation and testing progressed, the company’s homegrown system ran in parallel with the Okta Identity Cloud. In August, a month before the September rush, Okta became the primary platform.
“Our products are complex, and our scaling requirements are unusually large,” Moore says. “But the teams came together and gave us all confidence that we could do this. Everyone worked hard; we even set up war rooms to get the final push.”
The launch was a success. “September hit and the massive rush of students came in, and we had a seamless experience,” says Moore.
Since launching Okta, Cengage has hit new records for logins—over 250,000 per minute—without a hitch. “We had teams, both Okta and Cengage, actively watching, monitoring, seeing us hit those high watermarks,” says Moore. “We didn't have any hiccups at all.”
Raising global workplace security standards
Cengage’s work with Okta was not entirely about students and Customer Identity solutions—Cengage also implemented Okta solutions for its Workforce Identity needs, including Single Sign-On, Adaptive Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA), Lifecycle Management and Universal Directory. That means every Cengage user—students, educators, and employees—can access Cengage services and resources through a single portal.
“The implementation was amazingly straightforward,” says Moore. “Now our diverse global workforce of over 5,000 people and thousands of contractors can access and work on the content, from anywhere.” Now Okta is the identity standard for Cengage, company-wide.
“Okta’s workplace solution is thoughtfully designed; it’s not in the user's face. It helped us raise our overall security standards and how we're protecting the company, without slowing anyone down.”
Renewed focus on work that matters: keeping kids in school
Partnering with Okta has given Moore and his software and development teams the freedom to focus on work that really matters to them.
“Moving to Okta has allowed us to take some of our best and brightest engineers, who were working hard on solving the identity problem, and let them not have to worry about it,” says Moore. Those teams are now able to develop new features, improve personalization, build Cengage’s subscription service, and improve the student learning experience.
“Now those great engineers can focus on features that are really changing the industry. We’re changing how students learn, and changing how we can lower prices for students and make their experience much more valuable,” says Moore. “It comes down to our core value and mission: to increase enrollment and increase the students that are graduating from school. Our partnership with Okta is helping us achieve our goals.”
Cengage is the education and technology company built for learners. As the largest US-based provider of teaching and learning materials for higher education, we offer valuable options at affordable price points. Our industry-leading initiatives include Cengage Unlimited, the first-of-its-kind all-access digital subscription service. We embrace innovation to create learning experiences that build confidence and momentum toward the future students want.