Amnesty International has migrated its web hosting to a private cloud-based infrastructure, provided by Claranet, to support the flexibility it requires as it grows its websites and engages in social media activities. Cliff Saran interviews the head of IT at the charity about the move to a private cloud.
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A private cloud offers Amnesty International a flexible approach to scaling its website, which enables it to support campaigns run over social media sites. A hosted services approach would not have been flexible enough to support scaling bandwidth and servers up and down to support peak traffic during a social media campaign. The use of a private, over a public cloud is also significant, given that Amnesty International campaigns on human rights issues that some global organisations and governments would prefer to cover up. The attacks on Wikileaks earlier this year - and the fact that some of its service providers switched off the site - illustrates one of the inherent problems of public cloud services.
Kamesh Patel, head of IT at Amnesty International, has worked for the human rights charity for four years, during which time IT at Amnesty has diversified. "Four years is a long time in IT. We now have a lot more activity in the online space, especially with the growth of Facebook, Twitter and MySpace. Unless you are in those areas, you get left behind."
In particular, Patel says Amnesty predominantly uses Facebook and Twitter for discussion on breaches in human rights activities, to engage with people and give individuals the ability to take some kind of action, such as sign a petition, draft a letter to an MP or sign a card of support.
The charity gathers real-time news and information via video footage, blogs and forum updates, posted by individuals around the world. To better engage with its members, Amnesty realised it needed to revamp its digital strategy and the IT behind it. The challenge with social media and digital campaigns is that web traffic can peak. Patel says that by moving from a hosting to private cloud, Amnesty is able to control the whole of its infrastructure. "We can define how much we use. You would not get this kind of flexibility in a hosted environment."
Amnesty previously used several hosting firms for its websites, which was proving problematic.
Patel explained: "At the time, a number of third parties looked after our websites; each had their own hosting providers with different levels of service. This led to everything being done in silos and was complicated and demanding to manage."
Furthermore, the situation exposed the organisation to significant instability and risk. Should one of the third parties go under, or should a dispute arise, it would have been easy for any of the developers or agencies to simply turn off Amnesty's website. "We couldn't continue operating with this threat, so we decided we needed to consolidate our providers and gain back control over our hosting platform," said Patel.
As a result of its previous disparate and complex hosting environment, user data wasn't integrated across the organisation's various properties, which meant the charity had poor visibility of its users' profiles and their individual activity online.
Patel commented: "Because we lacked visibility of our data, it meant our hands were tied and limited the way we could interact with our users. With enhanced access to this vital information we would be able to see, for example, if an online visitor was an activist, if they were supporting us financially - and if so, how - and if they had any other areas of interest. We knew this information would enable us to support their journey to the Amnesty website, and once there, we could ensure they had access to all the content and resource they needed. This would, in turn, help to encourage and facilitate campaigning activity amongst all our users."
Patel wanted to simplify the hosting arrangement by having just one organisation take full responsibility. He said: "Initially we undertook a business case exercise, looking at the risks, and how our websites are hosted. The key mitigation point was moving to a key contact with a single account manager from multiple suppliers."
After a competitive pitch, Amnesty chose Claranet to underpin its technology transformation. "Claranet's SLA covered the whole service and guaranteed application availability. We wanted to dramatically streamline our hosting platform and it was clear that Claranet's all-encompassing SLA and single point-of-contact would help us to do this."
Claranet will support Amnesty International's digital strategy, which may require IT resources to be deployed flexibly, Patel said. "We are developing a digital strategy - with a desire to implement in an agile way." This means Amnesty requires flexibility for its website, its hardware and its service level agreements.
Social media can be bandwidth- and hardware-intensive. "When we request an agency develops new website functionality, we don't have to worry about the hardware or bandwidth," Patel explains.
When it took over the contract for the Amnesty websites, Claranet worked with the charity's agencies to ensure there would be ample headroom in server capacity and bandwidth, to support Amnesty's future plans.
This flexibility was recently tested. "We recently ran a campaign highlighting Shell's appalling human rights record in Nigeria and, using donations, had bought an ad in the Financial Times. At the last minute, however, the ad was pulled by the FT, infuriating campaigners. As a result, our blogosphere went completely crazy. Our social networking site www.protectthehuman.com experienced around 400 blog entries that day, compared to between 20 and 40 entries on an average day. Despite the huge spike in demand, our websites didn't crash."
Claranet's virtualised platform meant that Amnesty's server resources could be dynamically allocated to where they were needed. "This ensured our websites could cope with the unexpected demand, and that we were able to provide a smooth online experience for our users. And it continues to do this today."
The first phase of the project, completed in 2009, involved the implementation of the managed application hosting platform - to support the www.amnesty.org website and the organisation's central registration system.
For the second phase of its IT revamp, Amnesty is embracing social media tools and changing the content management system (CMS) on which its website is built.
In the third and final stage of the project, Amnesty International will revamp its website in late 2011. This will mark the end of the three-year project.
By using Claranet's private cloud, Patel says Amnesty International has been able to extend its website. "Before Claranet's hosting platform was in place, any e-commerce - where our members request information packs, CDs and other materials, or set up direct debits - had to be fulfilled manually, as our website and applications couldn't support this capability," said Patel. "Claranet has helped us to simplify our back-end processes and to automate fulfilment.
BOX: Amnesty International's IT
A private cloud gives Amnesty the security of having its own infrastructure.
Claranet provides a single point of contact.
Service level agreements and IT infrastructure is flexible.
Amnesty's websites can now support peak traffic and bandwidth that may arise from social media campaigns.