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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.

"We had performance problems when field people had to come all the way to our data center for authentication. Serving SSO from AWS improves performance for our global staff," Spence says, adding that NDI also has a read-only domain controller housed in AWS for SSO authentication.

Accounting and program tracking are cloud-bound as well. NDI has migrated those environments to AWS, but Spence noted that they're still in the testing phase. The migration has been timed to coincide with an upgrade to Deltek Costpoint 7. Spence says NDI plans to go live in AWS with Costpoint 7 and a companion application, the Deltek GovWin program-tracking database, by the end of May.

Spence says an upgrade can catalyze a cloud transition, noting that differing criteria can influence the timing: "You look for upgrade cycles — when hardware goes out of maintenance, or the hardware is off the books."

In another cloud move, NDI adopted in 2013. The organization initially runs two applications: Remedyforce, for help desk ticketing, and Jobscience, an online recruitment tool. Spence adds that NDI has five internal teams piloting Salesforce for CRM, specifically contact management.

Fewer Servers, Better Security, But Still Some Challenges

NDI has trimmed its roster of physical servers from 85 to 12 over the course of the cloud migration. This has let NDI maintain what Spence describes as a bare-bones technology team. The organization employs a core tech staff supplemented by consultants. In a recent round of belt-tightening, NDI cut back on project-based consulting but kept its current staff without layoffs, Spence says.

Security is another area of impact. Spence says NDI faces persistent threat issues due to the nature of its work. Outsourcing applications to the cloud has improved the organization's security posture, he says, adding that AWS can provide better security than his smallish staff could provide on-premises. "Managing infrastructure in the old way, we would be much more at risk."

In addition, the Amazon environment let the company rewrite its tech procedures and streamline the process involved in DevOps, Spence says.

While NDI reports cloud benefits, the migration hasn't been without issues. For one, the organization had to learn to optimize its environment and keep costs in check. NDI peaked at a $10,000/month spend on EC2 instances.

The organization has since streamlined operations and minimized costs through EC2 Reserved Instances, which are priced below Amazon's on-demand rate, and a few other techniques. NDI's management approaches have lowered its monthly AWS instance costs to about $2,800, Spence says. That improvement comes from understanding Reserved Instances and teaching developers to turn off instances they've spun up but no longer need.


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