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Singapore’s public sector finds agility and speed in AWS

City-state’s government has been able to meet peak demands and address security issues through a cloud-based web-hosting platform powered by Amazon Web Services

When WordPress developers issued a critical software update earlier this year, the Singapore government was able to apply it within hours across its websites that were powered by the content management system.

The speed at which the government sprang into action after the update’s release averted any possibility of its websites being compromised by hackers looking to exploit a vulnerability that allows malicious code to be injected into WordPress websites.

Tan Eng Pheng, senior director for clusters group at the Government Technology Agency of Singapore (GovTech), credited the government’s robust patch management processes to its cloud-based Content Website Platform (CWP), which is hosting 380 government websites so far.

“More than 90% of exploits are those that everyone knows about,” said Tan at this week’s inaugural Amazon Web Services Public Sector Summit in Singapore. “It’s a matter of who gets to the finishing line first – if you can patch faster, your website is safe.”

The CWP is a web-hosting service conceived by GovTech a few years ago to enable Singapore government agencies to roll out and manage their websites quickly and easily on a subscription basis.

Besides offering penetration testing, defacement monitoring and content delivery network (CDN) capabilities, the CWP also leverages a slew of AWS services, such as Simple Storage Service (S3) and Elastic Load Balancing for automatic scaling of resources.

“In the past, government agencies had to manage everything from the ground up, from storage and servers to transactional systems and websites,” said Tan, noting that with the CWP, agencies would only need to manage website content.

Citing CWP’s business benefits, Tan revealed that Vital, which supports the human resource and finance processing needs of government agencies, set up its corporate website in just seven working days.

Tan said this was “quite an achievement, at least in our view”, given that the agency would have to go through the process of acquiring the necessary infrastructure and testing its website thoroughly on its own without the CWP.

Read more about cloud computing in APAC

With a cloud-based architecture, the CWP can also support peak demands on government websites. 

“We can set utilisation thresholds and monitor usage of websites, so when utilisation reaches X%, we can spin up a new instance by copying the codes and configuration information from S3 storage,” said Tan. “The new instance is then connected to the load balancer and goes live with little or no downtime.”

For now, GovTech’s CWP can only be used to host government websites with unclassified data. In the US, AWS offers a GovCloud region designed to host more sensitive data and workloads to meet US government compliance requirements.

The Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) is another public sector organisation that has benefited from public cloud services.

Using AWS, the institute obtained the cloud computing resources it needed to quickly make sense of Singapore’s group B streptococcus outbreak in 2015.

“We could tell if different individuals were affected by the same virus and where that virus came from,” said Swaine Chen, senior research scientist at GIS, adding that AWS services had enabled his team to analyse the genomics data in a cost-effective and scalable manner.

“We manage our own compute environment, but our ability to scale as an institution bears no comparison to what we can access after moving over to AWS,” he said. “It also allows us to focus on the biology and collaborate with researchers in other parts of the world.”

Turning to public cloud

Like their counterparts in Australia, public sector organisations such as GovTech and GIS in Singapore are turning to the public cloud to improve their IT capabilities and deliver services to citizens more rapidly and cheaply.

Peter Moore, managing director of worldwide public sector at AWS Asia-Pacific and Japan, said countries such as Singapore and Australia have been embracing public cloud services more than others in the region.

“Markets like Japan and Korea also have tremendous potential as they have the right ingredients to take advantage of the cloud, such as high-speed networks, reliable power and a well-trained workforce,” he said.

According to Gartner, the worldwide infrastructure as a service (IaaS) public cloud market grew by 31% in 2016 to reach $22.1bn, up from $16.8bn in 2015. Amazon was the top supplier in the IaaS market in 2016, followed by Microsoft and Alibaba.

“The market for cloud services is growing faster than virtually every other IT market today, with much of this growth coming at the expense of the traditional, non-cloud offerings,” said Sid Nag, research director at Gartner.

“The demand for cloud-based IaaS continues on its path of aggressive growth, and the high growth of IaaS is also driving growth in related cloud markets. While platform as a service [PaaS] and software as a service [SaaS] are also exhibiting strong growth, IaaS is expected to show the fastest growth over the next five years.”

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