Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Troubleshooting a slow Moodle site at an African university

As part of my work for INASP I've been in touch with a few people at a major open university in Africa to set up an online course on their Moodle site.

But there was one obstacle: their Moodle site was really slow.

Sitting far away in Mumbai with only teacher-level access to their site, I could not tinker with the front-end administrator settings and certainly not the server where their site is hosted. All I could do was count the seconds it took to load a page.

I turned to Pingdom. I got varying results for the load time, but always higher than 20 seconds and the site was said to be slower than more than 90% of all tested sites!

The Moodle site is hosted on the university's own server infrastructure, and a locally based consultant was brought in to help resolve the problem. He got quite involved with the hardware and networking aspects, which is out of my territory. Things seemed to be getting more complex. I remember composing an email to say that I'm out of my depth and I would leave it to them to resolve things, but then I thought, maybe I can still be of some help. So I urged them to see the excellent suggestions given by Pingdom and to try to act on them.

For this particular Moodle site, the following were the top suggestions given by Pingdom:
  1. avoid bad requests
  2. minimize redirects
  3. minimize request size
The waterfall report showed how the elements of a page loaded and it was easy to identify bottlenecks.

I think the Pingdom reports (and perhaps my urging) helped in shifting attention and we got an easy win: the university's Moodle site is a lot faster now. I just tested it on Pingdom and it loads in a little under 5 seconds. Not very fast still, but a huge improvement compared to the 20+ seconds it took earlier!

What I've learnt from this experience is that fixing a slow Moodle site doesn't necessarily have to be a major technical exercise. Small things can clog up a webpage, and small changes can result in substantial improvement.

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