About swisstopo

swisstopo, the Swiss Federal Office of Topography, is Switzerland's national mapping agency. The agency is responsible for Switzerland’s geographical reference data and all associated products. It manages geographic information systems (GIS) projects for Swiss Federal offices and other customers.

The Challenge

The Federal Coordination Centre for Geographical Information, a division of swisstopo, operates the Federal Spatial Data Infrastructure (FSDI) to design and deliver GIS projects. Hanspeter Christ, deputy process manager of the FSDI, is responsible for the operation of the team’s infrastructure, which consists of more than 100 servers, the majority of which exist in the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud. “We manage many small-to-medium web GIS projects for our customers,” explains Christ, “which all require a specific server infrastructure.”

Why Amazon Web Services

swisstopo used AWS for the first time in 2008 to meet an urgent demand for a web portal from one of its key customers. “At the time, the FSDI was an on-premise site in a DMZ with a weak Internet uplink,” Christ says. “We lacked the computing capacity to meet our customer’s needs, and it was a long and cumbersome process to buy and install new hardware.” Working with a solution provider, Camptocamp SA, swisstopo used AWS to design and deliver the web application on time.

After this project, swisstopo was sold on using AWS. Christ says, “This positive experience, coupled with existing performance and capacity problems with our on-premise infrastructure, convinced us to move additional substantial parts of our FSDI to the AWS cloud.”

The agency currently uses 50 TB of Amazon Elastic Block Store (EBS) volumes and 10 TB of Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) to store the geographical information for 40 GIS projects and geoservices hosted in the FSDI. The agency currently uses 100 Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) instances to support up to 50,000 unique visitors per day. This equates to approximately 20 TB of data transferred per month and 1,300 map tiles delivered per second. Swisstopo estimates it is now possible for the FSDI team to launch a new server within an hour, instead of the weeks or months it took before using AWS.

Now, swisstopo operates a significant part of the FSDI integration and production environments on Amazon EC2, while test environments run on-premise on the swisstopo intranet. Figure 1 below provides a diagram of the infrastructure architecture.

Swisstopo Architecture (General)

Figure 1: swisstopo Architecture Diagram

swisstopo uses Puppet, a data center automation and configuration-management framework to manage and provision all FSDI servers. This approach allows swisstopo to manage elastic resources on AWS in the same way as on-premises servers, making the virtual on-premise server infrastructure almost identical to its similar servers in the AWS Cloud. It also increases productivity through the ability to automate error-prone common development tasks. Swisstopo uses Elastic Load Balancing to distribute the incoming traffic across its multiple Varnish caching proxies and to enable failover in an easy manner.

The agency uses Amazon S3 as an inexpensive storage location for its 1 billion map tiles. “Because of AWS CloudFormation and Amazon EC2, swisstopo is now in a position to easily store millions of map tiles using a highly scalable Tileforge cluster, which can be raised up within minutes when necessary," Christ says.

The Benefits

“With the FSDI running on AWS, we currently serve approximately 1 million Internet users per month,” says Christ. “Thanks to AWS, we can significantly shorten the time needed to allocate new servers and strengthen our focus on real customer needs.” In addition, migrating to AWS gave swisstopo an opportunity to tidy up legacy issues. Christ says, “AWS not only freed us from fiddling with physical hardware but also made standardization and automation of our server infrastructure much easier.”

Swisstopo appreciates the transparency of AWS usage charges that makes it simple to distribute the costs of the cloud server infrastructure among their customers. Christ also likes the continuous development of the AWS Cloud. “In an on-premise environment, we had to implement all these enhancements at our own expense. Now, we can benefit from AWS development while operating our systems on the AWS Cloud.”

In June 2012, the United Nations, which sponsors an annual Public Service Awards competition, awarded swisstopo second place in the category of “Advancing Knowledge Management in Government.” Christ says, “It’s clear to us that without our very early adoption of AWS, we wouldn’t celebrate this success now.”