NHS Connecting for Health
NHS Connecting for Health gets a hosting service that does justice to their online presence.
NHS Connecting for Health ('NHS CFH') is a Directorate of the Department of Health responsible for delivering guidance on computer systems and services to the NHS. It has a high-profile online presence that faces continuous challenges in terms of scaling and security, and is the public face of the ambitious NHS National Programme for IT.
In 2006 Beth Johnson, NHS CFH Web Development Team Lead and Shaun Hills, Technical Development Lead, were faced with the unenviable task of ensuring 24/7 hosting and support for the main NHS CFH website, and for the Choose and Book public website. fry and other companies were approached to tender for this contract and we won based on our technical expertise and affordable systems solutions.
fry designed and implemented a 2-node high-availability cluster. This formed the basis of a hosting platform which could accommodate multiple web applications separated into light-weight OS containers, with optimally used hardware resource. It has allowed the gradual ramping up of hosting from the initial two sites, to:
- 10 public websites
- an OpenID authentication service
- several mail relays
... all on the same hardware and under the same support contract.
There were numerous challenges on the way.
NHS CFH required special handling of secure SMTP mail on the relay, that required low-level code changes in the mail server software. In resolving the issue one of fry's system programmers ended up making several contributions to the opensource Postfix mailserver.
We also automated cluster failover by custom scripts between a dozen virtual machine pairs, to ensure the highest possible uptime of the NHS CFH applications. We extended the Java-based Crowd OpenID server functionality to suit the client's needs as their authentication and identity service. We helped the NHS CFH team debug Zope application server stability issues, and wrote and integrated a custom monitoring product for Zope.
Since launching the hosting platform in Q1 2007, we've delivered 99.9% application availability every year. NHS CFH have extended our contract to the maximum allowed three years. We've taken the hosting cluster through storage system upgrade from SCSI to SATA, through virtualisation change from one OS container virtualisation to a more advanced one, and through numerous operating system upgrades to stay fully up-to-date.
NHS CFH liked our approach to hosting their public websites so much that they subsequently invited us to deliver failover capability for their internal NWW websites. We've developed some new automatization procedures centred around database online replication and Zope specific replication. After successfully delivering the NWW failover on NHS CFH's own infrastructure, we used the same techniques to improve the cluster with public websites, too.
The hosting project was undertaken at a considerable scale. Over 100 editors updating the websites' content from the NHS CFH side, and over 8,000 users in the OpenID identity management system. The combined usage of the web applications exceeded 10 million hits per month in 2009.