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VMware vCloud Director Helps NDI Speed Technology Delivery Within Effects that Support Democracy
There’s no question that technology can make it easier for people to organize, get more out of their resources and share information. Whether deployed within a corporate department, a government agency, or a nonprofit, the right hardware and software can free people to spend their time on activities that better support the organization’s priorities, and in the case of non-profits, focus on their core mission.
The catch, of course, is cost. Developing and implementing technology can be prohibitively expensive, particularly for international development organizations trying to deliver IT services on tight budgets and to staff and beneficiaries spread around the world.
Take the National Democratic Institute (NDI), for example. A nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based in Washington, D.C., NDI works in every region of the world to strengthen democratic institutions, safeguard elections, advance citizen engagement, and support open and accountable government. In many countries where it operates, the IT infrastructure is anything but robust. Many groups in those countries have limited technical and financial resources to develop and sustain necessary IT assets.
“We work with groups in about 70 countries,” explains Chris Spence, Chief Technology Officer, NDI. These groups include political parties, civic groups, parliaments and other organizations. They need technology for a wide range of activities from tracking legislation, to monitoring elections and running “get out the vote” campaigns. NDI can often provide them with that technology—but it needs to do so not just in a cost-effective way, but in ways that give their in-country partners the knowledge to manage their own programs after NDI has stopped providing technical assistance.
NDI has piloted a VMware vCloud® Director implementation coupled with access to Bluelock Virtual Datacenters hosted in the public cloud. Spence turned to Bluelock, one of the VMware vCloud Datacenter Services providers, for their expertise as they are an award-winning provider of cloud hosting solutions for the enterprise. Hosted in the public cloud, Bluelock Virtual Datacenters help companies get started quickly and deal with the unknown, while retaining the flexibility to adjust IT resources as their needs evolve.
“We knew we could build reusable software tools,” Spence says. “But we would still have to build a web environment. With VMware vCloud Director, we now have the option of deploying applications in clouds from Bluelock and other VMware vCloud Datacenter Services providers, cloning them, customizing them, and deploying them, without overtaxing our engineering team.”
Addressing Application Reusability
Spence has a long history of solving technology challenges on behalf of NDI. He began helping the Institute while a graduate student back in 1996, when it asked if he could help Namibia connect its parliamentary library to the Internet. “I realized that it was about more than just connectivity,” he recalls. “It quickly became apparent that the Internet and related technologies would play an important part in democratic development and political life everywhere. Technology has an important role to play in everything from managing legislative processes to promoting government transparency.”
A few years later, Spence spearheaded an initiative within NDI to integrate technology into NDI’s democracy programs institutionally. “We created a team to focus on technology and its role in democratic development,” he says. At the time, the “digital divide” was considerable and the opportunities for democratic participation by citizens were limited. However, the explosion in the number of mobile phones in the last several years has improved communication and Internet connectivity substantially. People no longer need computers to get online. They can do it from their phones—and this has greatly expanded the ability of citizens to participate in political life.
The Institute’s approaches evolved along with technology advances: it embraced a philosophy of application reusability. “Building similar applications over and over again for groups in different countries became very resource-intensive,” he notes. So just like other enterprises, including private sector corporations, NDI now seeks ways to design reusable technology tools. “If we build an election monitoring application, for example, why not design it so that we can reuse at least parts of the code in multiple countries?”
Spence adds that building reusable applications “is a hard problem to solve.” This is particularly true because each country has a unique political system, each organization approaches its activities differently and there are typically big differences in the organizational structures of the groups, even when they have similar objectives. For example, citizen election monitoring groups in two countries might want election monitoring software. But one might need it to evaluate voter rolls to ensure that voters aren’t disenfranchised, while another needs to detect potential irregularities in the election-day voting process.
Then there are challenges with multiple spoken languages or vastly different communication and physical infrastructures. Nonetheless, application reusability is the future. “Our goal is to build our ‘50 percent solutions,’” Spence says. “We’ll build as much as we can as modules or stacks. Then each time we deploy an application, we address the localization and customization issues on a per-application basis.”
NDI contacted VMware for suggestions on how to best address this challenge. “NDI had requirements to move its software applications from its own datacenter to the cloud without re-writing them, modify them for different sites and then provide access to them worldwide. This was a good match for VMware’s vCloud architecture deployed within Bluelock’s Virtual Datacenters,” said Deepak Puri, Director, vCloud Business Development at VMware. “VMware, Bluelock and NDI worked together to get the Virtual Datacenter up in just 48 hours and were able to complete the entire first phase of this project within just two months.”
Allocating Resources as Virtual Datacenters
As NDI becomes more skilled at application re-usability, it expects to make more efficient use of its development resources. This will enable the organization to provide more development support for its budget dollar.
But that still leaves the problem of application hosting. “Generally speaking, the infrastructure in the countries we support is improving,even in the poorer countries,” Spence says. “But many of the groups we work with still can’t afford to host applications on-premises.”
Cloud technology offers a promising answer to that challenge. Spence describes the vision of how it can be used: “We could take an application, virtualize it in the cloud, and then, with a few clicks of a mouse, make the application live. A process that once took weeks or months can be reduced to a few minutes.”
In another scenario, one of NDI’s constituent groups might want to run an application locally. A group could do this by downloading a clone of the application from the cloud; it could then run it without needing ongoing Internet connectivity.
The foundation of the initiative is a Virtual Datacenter platform—a technology familiar to NDI. The Institute is currently implementing a VMware vSphere™ virtualized environment for its internal server infrastructure. It is also replacing its Microsoft Exchange email system with a cloud-based Google Mail solution. “We’re replacing our old traditional architecture with a combination of on-premise private cloud and public cloud resources,” Spence explains. Doing this will simplify NDI’s infrastructure—it will reduce its server footprint by over half, from 25 to fewer than 10 – and reduce operations costs. The organization also anticipates at least a 25-30% reduction in power and cooling costs. “We want to run a lighter, virtualized datacenter so we can focus more resources on supporting our primary objectives as an organization” he says.
For serving applications to constituents, however, NDI needed more than VMware vSphere technology. VMware vCloud Director proved to be the critical piece, because it enables NDI to allocate computing resources as virtual datacenters, and provide access to those resources on an as-needed basis.
Working with Bluelock, NDI tested the VMware vCloud Director technology on an application it uses internally. “We have an application that our staff uses in various country offices,” Spence explains. “We used VMware vCloud Director to serve that application to those offices.”
Bluelock’s role was instrumental in designing and executing the pilot. “They provided critical technology resources,” Spence notes. “Bluelock’s engineers made sure we had the right cloud hosting environment, sized our virtual resources correctly, while ensuring that we could easily reconfigure them if our needs change in the future and understood how to deploy our applications.”
The pilot was a resounding success: it validated both the functionality and the value of the VMware vCloud Director solution. “We were able to clone the environment, bring it up, and assign a new IP address without affecting user availability,” Spence says. “Users were unaware that it was running from the cloud. It worked flawlessly.”
Compatibility and Security in the Global Cloud
Happy with the outcome of the pilot project, NDI has started planning how it can incorporate VMware vCloud Director capabilities into its application deployment procedures. The next project will start when NDI staff in the field request a reusable application from the Institute’s home office in Washington D.C., where engineers expect to clone a virtual environment, issue an IP address and point a domain to the address.
Within a matter of minutes, the environment could be available for deploying the application. The team on the ground could then perform any required customization. “It wouldn’t be completely non-technical, but it also wouldn’t be an engineering challenge,” Spence notes. “They’d be doing ground-level data management and configuration.
“In this way, the framework supported by VMware vCloud Director lets us stand up virtual environments internally or within Bluelock’s cloud quickly without requiring a complex software development and deployment process.” Spence said. He estimates that configuring a virtual environment with VMware vCloud Director and Bluelock Virtual Datacenters will save NDI engineers approximately eight hours per deployment. Since federation is supported between VMware vCloud Datacenter Services offered by Bluelock and other certified providers, NDI can leverage other clouds around the world as needed, with the same compatibility.
VMware vCloud Director also leverages VMware vShield™ technology, which provides security capabilities to help safeguard virtual servers. “The risk of cyber attacks against our partner websites is an increasing concern,” Spence says. “We appreciate the fact that VMware vShield supports hardened Web hosting environments.”
As NDI executes its plans to offer virtualized application services, it expects to deliver more effectively on its promise to groups that are trying to promote democracy, and that turn to NDI for help. “We know that the right technology can strengthen democratic processes,” Spence says. “VMware vCloud Director and Bluelock Virtual Datacenters make it less costly and time consuming to get that technology into the hands of people who need it.”
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