By hosting Drupal on AWS, we’re saving the state of Georgia five million dollars over the next five years. 
Nikhil Deshpande Director

The Georgia Technology Authority (GTA) provides IT infrastructure and network services for agencies and departments throughout the state of Georgia. The GTA manages the state’s main website, Georgia.gov, which has about four and a half million visitors and almost 16 million page views annually. The organization also provides the enterprise content management platform that drives the websites for elected officials, state agencies, cities, and counties.

By 2011, the GTA started looking for an alternative to its existing content management system (CMS). At the time, the organization operated its own data center, using a server farm with about 47 servers to run the CMS. “We were managing two versions of an old, inflexible system,” describes Nikhil Deshpande, director of GeorgiaGov Interactive at GTA. “It was quite a task to manage both versions of the CMS and handle the daily upkeep of upgrades and patches for the servers.” When an attempt to upgrade the CMS failed, the GTA began looking for an alternative solution. “It was a two-pronged approach,” says Deshpande. “We wanted to find a better web publishing platform because the existing one limited what we could do. At the same time, infrastructure was a big factor. We were paying a lot for servers, licensing, and maintenance, and needed to find a way to reduce those costs.”

To solve for these challenges, the GTA selected the Acquia Platform, a Managed Platform as a Service based on the open-source CMS, Drupal, used by many government websites. The GTA then decided to host the new CMS on the cloud. “There are certain periods, say, during an election year, where we can plan for traffic,” says Deshpande. “However, when a major storm or other event draws national attention to Georgia, site traffic can quadruple. Hosting on the cloud gives us a level of scalability to accommodate anything coming our way.”  

“When I look at overall market share and level of technical sophistication, Amazon Web Services is a sure shot. As a government entity, I don’t want to take chances with something less recognizable or affordable. I wanted a bullet-proof solution for all of our web properties—and AWS is definitely the name that comes to mind,” says Deshpande. The GTA worked with Acquia, an Advanced Technology Partner in the AWS Partner Network (APN), to host the solution on Amazon Web Services (AWS). Cofounded by the Drupal project’s creator in 2007, Acquia provides the platform, service, and support that make Drupal enterprise ready.

Designing for Government Requirements
The GTA uses the OpenPublic version of Drupal, which is specifically designed to provide accessibility, security, and usability for government entities. Its websites are hosted on Acquia Cloud Enterprise, which is built on AWS infrastructure. Acquia Cloud Enterprise currently uses Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2), plus Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) for web-based data storage and retrieval. It offers high availability to customers by using multiple AWS Availability Zones in one AWS region with redundant servers serving each layer of the technology stack. There are three main components of a Drupal site hosted by Acquia Cloud Enterprise: the reserve proxy caching and load balancing servers, web servers, and database servers.

Nginx is used for HTTP and HTTPS load balancing. When the load balancer detects a web server failure, it will no longer send web requests to the failed server. Acquia's operational infrastructure constantly monitors more than a dozen system parameters on all load balancers. In addition, it monitors the websites behind those balancers to ensure they are accessible and reliable. When the monitoring detects an error, it immediately alerts operations staff.

At the Internet-facing tier, a software-based load balancer is deployed with a hot standby in a different Availability Zone in the same region. The load balancer distributes load across multiple web servers, which are also distributed across multiple Availability Zones. Acquia's operations team adds additional web servers to the resource pool as needed.

At the database layer, a scalable database cluster serves the site with active and passive database servers in multiple Availability Zones. The active master database server continuously updates the passive master database using MySQL replication. In the event of a failure of the master database, the passive database becomes primary through a DNS-based failover.

Migrating Websites Without Downtime
In May 2011, the GTA began the migration process by collaborating with Mediacurrent to move the Georgia.gov website to Drupal on the AWS Cloud. After the success of the move, the GTA and Mediacurrent then migrated approximately 50 state agency websites from the legacy CMS to AWS.

During this phase, Mediacurrent created a corresponding Drupal site for each website and moved four to five sites at a time over to the AWS Cloud. An automated script transferred content from the legacy CMS to the Drupal database. After content migration, the GTA performed QA testing and then turned sites over to the owners for final acceptance testing. The GTA launched the sites by redirecting each domain name from the old servers to the new ones on AWS. GTA accomplished each transfer without any downtime.  

The GTA completed the website migration by June 2012 as planned and on budget. By running Drupal on AWS, the GTA has been able to offer the CMS platform to more agencies and manage larger websites. Today the GTA hosts approximately 72 websites on AWS and handles more than one million unique visitors every month. “We just added the website for the Georgia Department of Revenue, which has a footprint equal to about 15 existing sites,” says Deshpande. “Being on AWS allows us to scale the platform to accommodate a website that large while reducing costs compared to our legacy data center. By hosting Drupal on AWS, we’re saving the state of Georgia five million dollars over the next five years.”

The scalability of the AWS Cloud helps the GTA keep critical websites operating. Deshpande explains, “In our previous environment, we were happy to have an uptime of 96 percent. On AWS, our uptime was 99.98 percent last year. And using AWS to scale is definitely a big win for us. During a recent denial-of-service attack, we were able to spin up extra capacity immediately to keep websites running with zero downtime.”

By using Acquia for management support, the GTA has been able to reduce headcount needed to support the CMS to just one developer. “I can run a leaner ship, but to be honest, the true advantage is that I can focus my resources on user experience instead of technology,” Deshpande says. “Now we have the time to work with agencies to determine how to best to serve our users. That’s where the true value comes from--being on AWS lets us focus on what we can offer to our constituents. Hosting our CMS solution on AWS gives us the flexibility and agility to bridge the gap.”

    About Acquia

  • Acquia is a software-as-a-service (SaaS) company providing products, services, and technical support for Drupal. The company is an Advanced APN Technology Partner, and an AWS Marketing & Commerce Competency Partner.
  • Learn more at acquia.com

To learn more about how AWS can help federal, local and regional governments, visit the Government and Education on AWS details page.