How a brand-new NIH center built its website from scratch

Two months is not a lot of time to develop a public-facing website. But if an agency has a development environment already in place and works with a company that knows something about moving applications to the cloud, it just might have a successful launch.

That’s how the National Institute of Health’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences was able to build a website from scratch after being established by Congress just in December 2011.

What does a center with an esoteric-sounding acronym like NCATS actually do?

“NCATS was established to speed up the basic scientific discovery for patient therapies and treatments,” explained NCATS CIO Jim Blagaich. “It is synonymous with drug companies, but we focus on rare diseases and developing small compounds that treat” those diseases, he said.

As soon as Congress appropriated money for the establishment of NCATS, “we had to communicate the new mission to the public,” Blagaich said. “In December, we were established and we had to have the website up and running in two months.”

NCATS partnered with Aquilent, a provider of technical services to the federal government, because of the company’s knowledge of the cloud and its Percussion content management system, which allows NCATS to push content to the site, which is hosted in the Amazon Web Services GovCloud.

Through NCATS previous work with Aquilent, a development environment had already been set up to speed the development of content templates. The production servers were up in about six weeks and NCAST just had to wait for the deputy director of NIH to approve the content.

“It’s nice to have that change where technology is no longer the friction for getting things up and running,” said Mark Pietrasanta, CTO at Aquilent. The focus should be on the business drivers that are spurring the move to the cloud. Technology should be completely out of the way, Pietrasanta said, noting that price, speed and flexibility are the triple drivers of most agencies moving to the cloud.

Blagaich and Pietrasanta spoke at Amazon Web Services’ Public Sector Summit 2012 held recently in Washington, D.C., where the company announced new services and capabilities for AWS GovCloud, including high-performance computing.

The primary challenges NCATS officials faced moving to the cloud were organizational, getting people within NIH to accept cloud computing. That is where it helped to have the support of the deputy director of NIH, a major stakeholder in the new center, Blagaich said.

Making sure that everyone was comfortable with the move and understood the differences between cloud computing versus traditional IT was critical, Pietrasanta said. This included bringing on board the IT staff assigned to do the operational maintenance of the components, the program offices, contracting officers and all other stakeholders, he said.

However, every situation is different, Blagaich said. The information NCATS put up on its website is low risk; there is no patient information. NCAST is operating at Federal Information Security Management Act low-level security requirements.

“One of the things we did not anticipate was not to be able to extend [Microsoft] Active Directory authorization/authentication to the cloud. That proved to be difficult. We could not overcome that hurdle,” Blagaich said. So the NCATS team set up an Active Directory server in the cloud and is now working with NIH to move Active Directory authentication into the cloud.

NCAST officials are looking at other systems that could be suited for the cloud, such as a document management system and a scientific information system that receives progress reports from scientists at universities with whom NIH collaborates.

NIH is among hundreds of federal, state and local government agencies using AWS’ cloud services to communicate with the pubic, improve efficiencies or meet mandates for data center consolidation, Amazon offices said.

For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s BioSense 2.0 is a public health monitoring service running in AWS GovCloud at the FISMA Moderate level. BioSense 2.0 collects data from over 2,000 health facilities to help health officials respond to diseases quickly, identify trends and save lives.

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