UK government uses ASP.NET for emergency flu pandemic web site

The British government today launched the National Pandemic Flu Service, the official web site for supporting the public during the emerging global "swine flu" pandemic.

The new online service is under "unprecedented demand", and is subject to unprecedented scrutiny by the media and other critics of the government in a period of international crisis. The government had to get this right, and above all had to make the right choice in terms of technology.

After careful evaluation, the technology selected to deliver this high-profile, high-throughput web site was ASP.NET. The decision is understandable; ASP.NET is arguably the best platform available for delivering a web site today -- and it's versatile and resilient. Moreover, building and deploying an ASP.NET web site is easy, quick, and economical. An added bonus which always looks good on the risk assessment sheet is that experienced .NET developers are plentiful and inexpensive to hire.

On the day it was launched, the new web site had to deal with 9.3 million hits per hour -- and that was just the soft-launch, before the web site had even been publicised through a major national advertising campaign on TV, web, newspapers and radio. Within the first eight minutes the company contracted to manage the service, BT, needed to quadruple the capacity of the system to ensure that all users were able to reach the service, maintaining sufficient connections and bandwidth.

Despite the success of the web site, the government has been criticised over delays and lack of coordination in implementing a wider strategy including a telephone helpline. Britain is already affected by a serious and escalating epidemic of "swine flu" (Mexican flu or porcine influenza). The crisis will get much worse before it gets better -- the flu season in the northern hemisphere (winter) is imminent.

The web architecture for the National Pandemic Flu Service is Microsoft's well-established n-Tier pattern. Essentially it's just a standard ASP.NET web application running on IIS 7 on Windows Server 2008 with a SQL Server 2008 database. The application uses ASP.NET's built-in page-level output caching, the most basic of the caching levels available in ASP.NET out-of-the-box, which allows pages to be served instantly direct from memory with minimal overhead even under extremely high traffic volumes.

This type of infrastructure is readily scaleable. Additional web servers and database servers can easily be introduced to increase capacity, with physical hardware or through virtualisation, and of course you can always add more RAM units or CPUs.

The official UK Resilience web site, which is the general government web site for major emergencies, is also powered by ASP.NET, along with other mission-critical online government systems.

It's reassuring to know that, when it really matters, for instance in times of national or international crisis, we all can (and do) rely on simple, effective, reliable, and robust commercial technologies like .NET.

23 July 2009

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Tim Acheson (27 Jul 09, 12:55)

It’s good to know that .NET is readily available as a complete solution for rapid development and deployment of web sites and other systems, off-the-shelf, out-of-the-box, with a ready-to-use IDE, all on Windows, and harnessing the most mature and advanced programming languages available (including C#).

Alternative, less commercial technologies and open source solutions are trendy at the moment. No wonder -- what self respecting young modern computer science student doesn’t dabble with free stuff in his bedroom late at night? Many start-ups have used such technologies, becoming trendy themselves for a while, like Facebook, Twitter, etc.

I’m much more of a commercial man myself, and even I would consider using Java in various scenarios, including significant commercial enterprises. Similarly, scripting languages like PHP, Ruby or Python are fine for a personal blog or small web site. Of course, .NET is equally suited for much smaller low-budget projects, like this very web site.

Bradley Wright (28 Jul 09, 09:49)

Just wanted to call attention to this comment:

> Similarly, scripting languages like PHP, Ruby or Python
> are fine for a personal blog or small web site.

as complete nonsense, and point out that it shows a total misunderstanding of the technology the Internet uses.

Google uses Python and Java; Yahoo! and Facebook use PHP. You don't get sites bigger than that. Maybe you should re-read your Internet history.

Seems that some folks use open source technologies as it helps them stay agile, cuts costs and delivers:

Bradley rightly challenges a provocative comment. (I refer the honourable gentleman to the disclaimer on the About page.)

However, allow me to put my words back into the proper context:-

"I’m ... a commercial man ... would consider using Java ... scripting languages like Ruby ... fine for a personal blog..."

Evidently, from the start I'm describing my own personal preferences. Quoting the 2nd sentence in isolation could imply something else, but that'd be out of context.

I haven't said scripting languages aren't suitable for a major project. That'd be astonishing. (E.g. major websites still use classic ASP, an old technology scripting VBScript/JScript server-side. I understand when script kiddies (myself included) feel defensive given the performance of compiled code. I do prefer the performance of Java/J2EE to JScript/ASP. (I was a Java developer for before .NET evolved.) I don't mind Python; I've scripted it in 3D modelling apps, I can even use it (but compiled) in .NET.

Ross -- interesting article there about large scale development on LAMP; sounds like a real win that memcache with such a tasty cache hit-rate.

I thank Bradley for prompting me to clarify my own comment. (It was consciously a comment, rather than part of the article.) I welcome any challenge to anything I’ve written on here. If/when I do write something inaccurate, I'll gladly correct it.

I agree with Tim Acheson that ASP.NET provides everything out of the box and also provides rapid development where PHP would take a bit longer as you need to code everything from the beginning and make sure that it's secure.....

I'm happy to see that the British Government uses ASP.NET for all there websites and online systems.


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