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Meet Your Colleagues: Web Application Development & Automation

Top row, L-R: Chris Moore and Dalton Clift; bottom row, L-R: Jon Ross and Stephan Stankovic; far right is Thanh Nguyen.

Top row, L-R: Chris Moore and Dalton Clift; bottom row, L-R: Jon Ross and Stephan Stankovic; far right is Thanh Nguyen.

A web server "serves up" web pages. Seems simple enough, except it isn't.

"There are many, many servers on the back end [behind the scenes], but for the end user, it seems like you're just interacting with one server," said Jon Ross, senior middleware systems administrator.

"You don't realize your request [a message sent to a server requesting something] is being constantly redirected to different machines. "To you, it just appears like you're interacting with a single web server, when your request may be bouncing all over the place before it's fulfilled," Ross said.

Different servers do different things. A web server stores and delivers website content, while an application server is an intermediary between database servers and end users, often connecting the two. A proxy server sits between, say, a web browser and an external server. Its primary job is to improve the performance of shared connections.

"It's funny because a lot of what we do, if it's successful, no one will know because things will just work," Ross said.

Making sure things work seamlessly is a badge of honor for the Web Application Development & Automation team within Software Platform Services in the Chief Technology Officer organization.

"We're unofficially known as the middleware team, because we're in the middle of everything," said Thanh Nguyen, senior systems administrator and team lead.

If a piece of hardware were to fail in the Downtown Data Center, for example, causing an application server to go down, Chris Moore, middleware systems administrator, said the ripple effect would be hardly noticeable by the end user because technology stacks are built on several layers, many of which are redundant.

"In that hypothetical, should a layer fail, it's going to fail in such a way that your request still gets answered, or your next request gets answered when you try again," Moore said.

They support major efforts like the university’s IT disaster recovery plans, but Nguyen said daily responsibilities tend to involve building and deploying source code, web hosting (they run 400 LAMP stacks for U organizations' websites, and provide web hosting platforms for a number of colleges and departments), automation around those operations, and load balancing. Load balancing refers to distributing network traffic so that no single server bears too much demand.

This critical task, Moore said, "ensures that systems we support are available and scalable, so they can meet user demand at any given point."

If you like to learn, it's a good team to be on. According to Kim Tanner, associate director of Software Platform Services, they spend approximately 70 percent of their time directly supporting existing services, and 30 percent researching ways to enhance these services.

"That's the good and bad of it, right? It's one of my favorite things about the team, but I'm always struggling, there's so much to learn, and it changes so often," Ross said.

That endless pursuit of knowledge seems to appeal to everyone.

"I like that I can look to everyone for different sets of knowledge. That's reassuring, because I feel like our team is really just one big project that's constantly changing," said Stephan Stankovic, middleware systems administrator.

Stankovic is one of the newer members, but not as new as IT Specialist Dalton Clift, who was hired in April. Clift has met only Nguyen and Moore in person.

"I was like, 'Oh, that's what they look like,'" Clift said of first seeing his other colleagues in online meetings. "... Onboarding in the middle of a pandemic has been kind of an interesting process, for sure."

Even though they're socially distanced, it’s clear the group has formed a tight bond.

"I love the team dynamic. We all like to mess around and have fun while staying serious and on task," Stankovic said.

Nguyen agreed.

"The team's really chill. Everyone's willing to help out where needed," he said. "You give them a project knowing that they’re going to research it and do it, and nobody complains."

Except maybe about how daily routines have been upended.

"Working from home hasn't affected our productivity — we get as much done — we just don't go to lunch," Ross said.

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Last Updated: 5/29/20