Why Victoria's fire services turned to cloud for capacity

New version of FireReady app relies on public cloud to cope with surges in demand brought about by extreme weather and natural disasters

Inadequate infrastructure to cope with end user demand can cripple an organisation and risks doing damage to reputation and revenue. But when your organisation needs to deliver information that may mean the difference between life and death the stakes are, obviously, a lot higher.

Early last year, the Country Fire Authority found itself in a situation where its infrastructure was straining to keep up with usage of its FireReady mobile app. That experience led to a decision to re-architect the app it to run on public cloud services, with a new version of the app released late last year.

The success of that experience has shown the potential for broader use of public cloud by government agencies, according to Victorian Fire Commissioner Craig Lapsley

The first version of FireReady was released in 2010. It was a “very successful”, Lapsley said. Cliches exist for a reason: FireReady ended up being very much a victim of its own success.

“We had a bad experience with it in early 2013,” Lapsley explained. “The world had moved past us; the number of smartphones and tablets that were available and using the app started to challenge some of the functionality of the app.”

On 4 January 2013, as temperatures soared about 40 degrees and more people turned to the app for information, it started to buckle under the strain. The app relied on the Country Fire Authority’s website, which received 12 million hits in 12 hours.

“Straight away we knew we needed to look at surge capacity and understand what the capability of such an app needed to be and what infrastructure was needed to support it,” Lapsley said.

“Our architecture was challenged, the functionality was challenged and our infrastructure to support the app was challenged because so many people were coming on to it.”

The fire services went back to the drawing board and in December relaunched the app with a new architecture that was delinked from the website. Public cloud was used to deliver elastic infrastructure that could cope with massive surges in usage.

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“We relaunched it using Amazon Web Services to give us the ‘surge capacity’ required to deal with such an app,” Lapsley said. Hundreds or thousands of people may access the app on a typical day; but during peak periods, such as 9 February this year, usage soars. On 9 February the app sent out 1.7 million push notifications in an hour and 12 million for the entire day.

The app relies on a handful of Amazon’s cloud services; along with EC2 and S3 it uses AWS’ Simple Notification Service (SNS), Simple Queue Service (SQS) and the cloud provider’s CDN.

“Government  has been a laggard with technology and we needed to move to the front of this,” Lapsley said. Reputation is vital for emergency services, he added. “If communities think that  their emergency services are not giving them what they need when they need it -- one, they’ll be very disappointed, but two they will lose confidence in what  you do provide them.”

“We knew  that we were probably ahead of where government was in the main [when it comes to cloud] but we’ve been supported,” he said. “I think there’s a good acceptance across government areas  that this type of technology is a technology of the future.”

The process of rearchitecting the app to use cloud was “a very big exercise” given the timeframe, said Chris Thomas, who is a senior advisor on information interoperability for the Victorian Fire Services Commissioner. A lot of effort late last year went into testing to ensure reliability, he said.

The Commissioner said he could “absolutely” envisage increasing use of cloud by Victorian Fire Services. “We’ve got other parts of our systems that will fit,” Lapsley said.

“Cloud computing  has matured dramatically... we’re seeing it mature [to the point] where people understand it and get the true benefits out of it.”

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Tags smartphones appsAmazon Web ServicesamazonmobilityCloudAWScloud computingmobile appsnatural disasters

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