Overseas Vote Foundation (OVF), a US-based nonprofit, nonpartisan 501(c)3 organization, helps Americans register to vote and sign up for absentee ballots even when they are far from home. In 2005, OVF set up the United States’ first comprehensive online voter services site, offering registration, ballot request and information tools for voters who are outside the United States on Election Day—including military personnel, overseas government employees, and US citizens living abroad. “We wanted to make usable, user-friendly, comprehensive voter services for overseas and military voters ubiquitous,” says Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat, President and CEO of OVF. Over time, the foundation’s voting applications have grown in complexity, but the mission is still the same: making it easier for American voters around the world to take part in federal elections.
In 2011, OVF started looking into ways to serve stateside voters as well as overseas and military voters. The foundation originally enabled US citizens living abroad to register to vote and request their absentee ballots using a standardized federal process. However, within the US, there is no federal standard for requesting absentee ballots across all states, and states prefer their own forms for voter registration.
Providing better service to stateside voters meant facilitating voter registration and absentee ballot request for 50 different states’ customized requirements. Each state has a unique, state-specific form, which required a customized question flow to be programmed. In addition, OVF programmed the state-specific form output for both voter registration and absentee ballot request, respectively, for all 50 states. The new organization that they launched with these broader capabilities is called US Vote Foundation (US Vote).
There were other changes in the works as well. OVF wanted to provide voters with mobile applications, reduce costs, and improve flexibility. They expected the 2012 presidential election to draw more users to their web services than ever before. “We needed more flexibility to meet our peaks in traffic,” Dzieduszycka-Suinat says. “We were locked into an expensive system that didn’t give us the immediate scalability and reliability that we require. It was time for a new solution.”
OVF decided to migrate to Amazon Web Services (AWS). For advice, the company turned to Bear Code, a consulting company that provides turnkey IT solutions for the OVF organization. Bear Code was managing OVF’s hosting, and had helped other clients move to the AWS Cloud with success. “We’ve become pretty big fans of AWS over the last year,” Bear Code managing partner Michael Howe explains. “AWS lets our clients become far more nimble, and more agile, than they could be on a traditional hardware solution. That flexibility was one of the factors that led us to recommend AWS to OVF.”
OVF received more than 1 million visits without incident across their 18 full-service voter websites in 2012. “Keep in mind, our sites are not providing simple, static content,” Dzieduszycka-Suinat says. “These are interactive web applications with moving parts. During our peak time, from September 1 through November 15, site visits increased by 20 percent in 2012 compared to 2008. Page views increased by 50 percent. We consider that real success. “If we look at the same peak time frame in 2010, the midterm elections versus the 2012 Presidential election,” she continues, “the OVF site experienced a 200 percent increase in user visits. Now that’s significant.”
AWS enables OVF to manage their costs better by scaling instances up and down as needed. Moving to the AWS Cloud also made it easier for the team to upgrade the operating system and make changes to the system without the delays that would have been necessary with traditional hardware. The team is using Amazon Relational Database Service (Amazon RDS) in multiple Availability Zones to increase reliability. The team is also using Amazon Elastic Cloud Compute (Amazon EC2), Elastic Load Balancing, and Amazon Simple Email Service (Amazon SES), as shown in the architecture diagram below.
The Bear Code development team built a staging environment that mirrors the production environment—a task that would have proved difficult using OVF’s former provider. “Providing that functionality would have doubled OVF’s costs,” Howe says. “Before AWS, we used a separate staging server that wasn’t hosted. Amazon EC2 makes it a lot easier to clone a machine to make an additional production machine or a staging server. Creating a testing environment is a big help in terms of avoiding surprises.”
“The minute we moved onto AWS, I noticed a big change in performance,” Dzieduszycka-Suinat says. “With our kind of operation—so cyclical, with users spread all over the world—I need to be confident that people can get good response times from our system. I have to know that we can control both our costs and our resources, making sure we have what we need precisely when we need it. Finally, I have the responsibility of knowing that we’re not spending money for resources that we aren’t even using.” The flexibility afforded by the AWS Cloud has been a boon, Howe says. “We had a new developer join our team to build mobile applications for OVF. Using AWS, he could quickly set up a new server that’s separate from the main websites. That would have been hard to do with our previous provider.”
OVF has experienced other benefits as a result of moving to AWS, as well. They are able to take advantage of a broader range of services than with their previous solution, including automatic database server failover to a server at a different location in case of disaster. OVF can now offer a mobile services site to their customers and they were able to integrate an OS upgrade on all machines at very little cost to the company. In addition, the OVF staging servers are now exact duplicates of the production servers—making testing more reliable.
Moving to the AWS Cloud has increased Dzieduszycka-Suinat’s confidence in the peak time reliability of the OVF system. “The 2012 election was the first major election during which I never worried that the system would go down due to demand,” she says. “The thought of downtime didn’t even cross my mind. Now that we have switched to AWS, we can just do what we need to do and AWS moves with us, rather than making us work around it.”
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