The Global Crop Diversity Trust, an independent international nonprofit organization headquartered in Bonn, Germany, has a mission to ensure the conservation of global agricultural crop diversity. To accomplish this, the Crop Trust funds and coordinates some of the world’s major collections of crop diversity in the form of seeds (wheat, rice, etc.) and plant cuttings (potato, banana, etc.). The organization also maintains Genesys, a database of the world’s crop diversity in gene banks. The Genesys database contains information on more than 2.7 million varieties of crops, searchable by anyone who needs to connect to gene banks to order those crops.

The Crop Trust operates a growing, diverse IT infrastructure to support its mission. However, that infrastructure had become increasingly difficult to manage. In addition to the Java-based Genesys database, the organization was managing several websites, including a main corporate site, an online reporting tool for grant management, and other internal systems. “We were using separate hosted web providers for each website, each at different collocation sites,” says Alireza Mohammadi, IT system administrator. “So we had one provider hosting Genesys, and other providers hosting the main site and the online reporting tool, for example. We wanted to consolidate all the websites and ease the management of the environment.”

The organization also needed the ability to scale its Genesys database, used by many scientists and plant breeders every day, in order to add more crop-related data, such as evaluation and characterization information of varieties and data from additional gene banks. “We wanted a way to provision more capacity as needed,” says Mohammadi.

As it considered ways to centralize its IT and web-hosting environment as well as increase scalability, the Crop Trust knew it would need to find the most cost-effective solution. “As an international organization funded primarily by taxpayer dollars, cost is a huge factor for us in investing in new technologies,” says Brian Lainoff, partnerships and communications officer. “We want our money to go back into the work as much as possible.”

When Mohammadi began to evaluate IT infrastructure providers, he had three criteria in mind: “Cost was a big factor, of course, but flexibility and security were also critical,” he says. “We needed the flexibility to easily scale up servers as we expand, and we also had to make sure the infrastructure was secure because of the important data we store on Genesys and our other sites."

Mohammadi found what he was looking for in Amazon Web Services (AWS). “After considering all the factors that were important to us, we knew we wanted a cloud solution, and AWS was the best choice,” he says. “It had the best price and it offered us scalability and flexibility, so we could easily expand our services globally.”

The Crop Trust started by using the AWS Free Tier, which gives users hands-on experience with AWS before deployment. “AWS Free Tier gave me a great opportunity to test AWS to see all the features and determine how flexible and secure it was,” says Mohammadi. “It reassured me that we were on the right track.”

After a period of trial, the organization migrated the Genesys database to the AWS cloud, with two Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) C3 instances running our web application and Elastic Load Balancing to distribute incoming traffic. The Crop Trust chose C3 instances in order to support the high number of computations performed by the organization’s applications, and also because of the technology’s SSD-backed instance storage. In the background, a MySQL database containing detailed access-level information runs on an Amazon Relational Database Service (Amazon RDS) instance. The Crop Trust also uses Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) to host auxiliary data.

Several months after moving Genesys to AWS, the Crop Trust deployed its Alfresco document management application in AWS to solve file storage challenges. The application contains about 200,000 documents, which 30 employees need to access. “All our documents will be stored there,” says Mohammadi. “That gives us more flexibility and better management because previously those documents were stored in a simple local NAS server.” says Mohammadi. “AWS has many security certifications and provides Service Organization Reports in accordance with International Standards for Assurance Engagements No. 3402 (ISAE 3402), and it’s also very easy to configure the firewalls through the management console to get security exactly the way we want it. We’re very confident in the security of our systems using AWS services.”

Following the Alfresco deployment, the Crop Trust consolidated its remaining customer-facing websites to one server in AWS, using Amazon EC2 instances and Amazon CloudWatch for monitoring. The organization plans to deploy Amazon CloudFront, a content-delivery web service that distributes web content closer to users, and AWS CloudFormation to help with capacity management and architecture design. As a final step in the AWS migration process, the organization moved its online reporting tool to AWS.

Using AWS, the Crop Trust has been able to consolidate its disparate website backends and internal systems into a single, centrally managed cloud-based solution. “With our previous web-hosting providers, each system had different policies and management interfaces, which was very inefficient from a management perspective,” says Mohammadi. “When we consolidated everything and moved it to AWS, it made things much easier. AWS has a great management console that simplifies everything. I can more easily manage the servers, and I’m saving a lot of time now.”

The Crop Trust also now has the scalability it needs to quickly respond to usage demands on its primary website. “AWS makes it really easy for us to increase capacity,” says Mohammadi. “With Amazon EC2, we can create a new instance in less than a minute and duplicate those instances just as quickly. With other providers, it could take several days just to get access to new servers. And with Amazon CloudWatch, we can track our usage to see exactly when we need to add capacity. We now have the flexibility we were looking for in order to keep up with business demands on our website.” The Crop Trust can also use that flexibility to increase the volume of data in Genesys. “We can really expand the amount of crop data in Genesys with the flexibility we have in AWS. The end users will have much more information to choose from now,” Mohammadi says.

System performance is another important advantage the Crop Trust gained. “Using Amazon CloudFront, we will be able to deliver web content to our users much faster and at lower latencies than before,” says Mohammadi. “That will provide stronger performance for our core website every day.”

Cost was one of the organization’s key motivators for moving to AWS, and it has realized savings by taking advantage of cost allocation tags to categorize and track its AWS costs. For instance, the organization applied tags to its Amazon EC2 instances and other AWS features to better organize its costs across all services. “The cost allocation tags in AWS were critical for us, because we need to differentiate the budgets for each of our systems,” says Mohammadi. “That’s a unique tool I didn’t see in other systems we looked at, and it helped us calculate precisely how much our costs would be for each budget area.” Adds Lainoff, “We have also reduced some of our operating expenses, as our previous hosting providers were more expensive. It is very cost effective for us to use AWS, and that’s so important for us as a nonprofit.” Overall, the Crop Trust expects to save 30 percent of its core website operating costs using AWS.

Mohammadi adds, “The Technical Account Manager is always helpful and works hard to resolve any issues we have. That’s a great feeling, knowing that support is always there for us. It adds to our overall satisfaction with AWS, which is providing the flexibility, security, and scalability we need as our organization continues to grow.”

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