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CTO says cloud services earn vote of International Election Monitoring Group

John Moore | May 2, 2014
The National Democratic Institute has workers in 65 countries -- not all of them friendly. To support its growing global mission, and to improve efficiency without buying more hardware, the nonpartisan nonprofit has spent the last four years migrating to the cloud.

The National Democratic Institute (NDI), a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works with transitioning democracies around the world, is in the midst of a migration that will see many of its key applications — from back-office systems to in-country support tools — move to the cloud.

NDI, with headquarters in Washington, D.C., works in 65 countries, collaborating with local partners to establish political and civic organizations, monitor elections and promote open government. The organization recently completed a pre-election mission in Ukraine, where elections are slated for May 25.

A number of factors pointed NDI toward the cloud: The global nature of the enterprise, a push for greater efficiency and economic trends. Chris Spence, NDI's CTO, says the organization's cloud strategy got underway in October 2010. A conversation with NDI's chief financial officer helped confirm the cloud approach.

Spence says the CFO wanted to ensure that NDI would be flexible if funding levels were unexpectedly reduced. "The driver really was the ability to be responsive. The way we did that was to move to the cloud."

NDI's cloud response employs Software as a Service (SaaS) applications such as and cloud-based application hosting via Amazon Web Services (AWS). The cloud push has boosted the organization's efficiency while allowing it to focus on its core mission.

The ongoing cloud migration, however, hasn't been without a few hiccups. NDI discovered the need to optimize its cloud environment and prevent instances from proliferating.

Phased Migration to Cloud Services Works Well

A move to Google Apps in 2011 marked one of NDI's first initiatives within its cloud strategy. The following year, NDI kicked off its AWS migration, making use of such resources as Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2), Amazon Simple Storage Service (S3) and AWS Elastic Beanstalk. Spence said the organization now has 53 instances running in AWS.

Though many of those instances are public-facing websites. NDI also has a Virtual Private Cloud (VPC) in place to run some internal-facing services, according to Spence. A VPC is an isolated segment of the AWS cloud where customers can define a virtual network and deploy AWS resources.

Offloading email and website hosting are typical of early moves into the cloud. NDI has pushed beyond those applications, for instance by transferring its authentication and single sign-on (SSO) function to AWS. Spence says a third-party service provider manages the cloud-based federated SSO offering residing on Amazon.

The organization works with GLUU, an Austin, Texas-based company that provides open source authentication and API access management stacks. "They were willing to jump into our VPC and manage our infrastructure for us," Spence says.

Cloud-hosted authentication has made computing life easier for the organization's far-flung personnel. Of the company's 1,400 employees, about 1,100 work in the field. AWS operates in 10 geographic regions and a number of edge locations globally. This gets computer resources closer to distributed field personnel.


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