Université Laval’s CLESSN and Unicorne share their research in a secure environment over AWS Université Laval




Cloud native development




Université Laval's CLESSN and Unicorne share their research in a secure environment over AWS

Université Laval’s Leadership Chair in The Teaching of Digital Social Science (CLESSN) has collected hundreds of gigabytes of data by analyzing survey respondents’ mood levels, the headlines of major Canadian media and political decision-making. However, it lacked a secure and compliant method of sharing this data between its many research institutes.

CLESSN migrated part of its IT infrastructure to Amazon Web Services (AWS) with the help of AWS Select Public Sector Partner, Unicorne. The two organizations have also worked together to develop a web-based application that enables the public, media, researchers and policy-makers to analyze public opinion and guide their decision-making. This, while also anonymizing personal information to protect the privacy of individuals involved in social research.


Overcoming Research Collaboration Challenges on AWS

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Yannick Dufresne, the Chair of Research at CLESSN at Laval University, launched an initiative funded by the Quebec government and various research groups, the Quorum Project.. The initiative utilizes a web application that aggregates data to assess public sentiment, Canadian media, and the country’s policymakers in near real-time.


As of July 2021, the project had collected 5 TB of data, with a monthly growth rate of 500 GB. Previously, Mr. Dufresne’s team collected data from a computer and manually uploaded it to a server. However, due to the university’s decentralized system consisting of many on-site servers and disparate IT teams, transferring data from one server to another for access by other research teams proved to be challenging. Significant time was dedicated to system management and implementing new hardware to generate the computing power required to handle traffic spikes. Additionally, preparing large datasets for analysis was time-consuming. Researchers spent 80% of their time cleaning, tagging, and anonymizing data, with only 5% of their time dedicated to analysis.


CLESSN chose to work with Unicorne based on recommendations from other internal institutions of the cloud service provider. “We have a lot of data and scientific knowledge but limited technical skills,” explained Mr. Dufresne. “That’s why we started working with Unicorne.” Unicorne and CLESSN decided to create a solution that would automatically scale to handle traffic, enable data analysis, anonymize personally identifiable information, and serve as a bridge between the university’s data lake and the various survey groups.


Creating a secure and compliant research application.

CLESSN and Unicorne began developing the Quorum Project in July 2020. In September, the first version of the Quorum Project was ready, and Unicorne had completed the data migration to AWS. In October, Unicorne presented the proof of concept to all 42 stakeholders at Laval University. They completed the alpha version of the Quorum Project in November and presented it to the university faculty dean in December. The project concluded in February 2021, just 7 months after its inception.

For its IT infrastructure, Laval University and Unicorne utilized AWS Fargate., a serverless container compute engine that eliminates the need to provision and manage servers. By migrating to the cloud, CLESSN was able to automatically scale its application and save on IT costs. To analyze and respond to its peak traffic demand, the organization also utilized Amazon Relational Database Service (Amazon RDS), which provides cost-effective and scalable capacity while automating time-consuming administrative tasks such as hardware provisioning, database setup, patching, and backups. “It was crucial to involve AWS professionals instead of thinking we could do it ourselves,” Mr. Dufresne explained. “AWS is the place to invest if you want an infrastructure that will still be there in 10 years.”

To store large amounts of data, CLESSN used Amazon RDS alongside Amazon Aurora., Amazon Aurora, a MySQL and PostgreSQL-compatible relational database designed for the cloud. Using these solutions allows CLESSN to securely store and encrypt the results of its surveys without experiencing crashes or downtime in its database. At the end of the project, it had collected and stored over 18 TB of data. To speed up the delivery of its static website, the organization started using Amazon CloudFront, a fast content delivery network service that securely delivers data, videos, applications, and APIs to customers worldwide with low latency and high transfer speeds. It also used Amazon CloudFront to host its application.

To maintain the confidentiality of personally identifiable information of its participants, the university also used AWS Shield., a distributed denial of service (DDoS) protection service that safeguards applications running on AWS. “By using AWS security solutions, we can ensure enhanced security and privacy,” explained Eric Pinet.