Sweet Nectar of success
It was a sweet victory for the Government Technology Agency (GovTech), as its Nectar project was one of two winners from Singapore in the recent 2016 Red Hat Innovation Awards.
The award recognises the innovative development of the Nectar project — by the Government Digital Services (GDS) team — using Red Hat’s OpenShift technology.
It was presented at the Red Hat Forum Singapore in late September 2016. Nanyang Technological University (NTU) was the only other winner, for its SMART Mobility initiative.
Mr Parimal Aswani, Director, Technology at GDS said, “We love the challenge of building Nectar, an Open Cloud Native Application Infrastructure for the government of Singapore, as it requires us to design, build, deploy and operate a Platform-as-a-Service that can meet stringent government requirements, while maintaining usability, reliability and agility.”
Nectar will thus provide a platform-as-a-service (PaaS) for hosting government e-services. It will allow Government agencies to host just about everything from the front-end to the back-end of development: APIs, web, mobile and data science apps.
The innovative use of open cloud technology in Nectar will help agencies to quickly develop, host and scale applications.
Trivia: Not quite an acronym, Nectar’s name is meant to reflect its origins as a GovTech Hive product.
Mr Aswani pointed out that current platforms can be rather complicated.
“We wanted to make the experience for the agencies and developers, in deploying apps, more seamless and straightforward.”
In short, “Nectar will empower developers and it will offer a simple yet powerful interface for agency users. They can deploy the solutions much faster, and end users will enjoy a better experience when they use the services developed by the agencies.”
Open Source Platform
After much research, the team found that OpenShift would offer a good solution for a multi-tenanted platform, which will provide isolation for each agency’s digital services, while enabling the sharing and efficient use of computing resources.
OpenShift is Red Hat’s container application development and hosting platform. The cloud-based application platform is designed to let developers build, test, deploy, and run their applications.
“When we were looking at all the requirements, we found the situation quite unique. We needed a central platform for all agencies, but all the digital services from different agencies needed to have the isolation to protect their applications.”
The team evaluated other alternative solutions which did not provide quite the same flexibility.
“OpenShift is an Open Source platform and supports docker technology, which allows us to be more future proof as we are not locked into any proprietary platform.”
Mr Mark Lim, Director, Product Design & Development, Government Digital Services, GovTech, said, “We are trying to protect our investments and assets by using open source. We are not locked in, we retain control of the source code.
“Because the solution is portable, it can move to new technologies or a different infrastructure if necessary.”
Nectar’s development itself offers a blueprint for other agencies.
Said Mr Aswani: “Hive is known for Agile development, where we build apps very quickly and breakdown the development phases into sprints. We have a new release every two weeks which allows us to we push out features quickly.”
Abuzz about Agile
While the development environment is agile, the deployment environment also needs to be agile to keep pace with DevOps and allow continuous delivery.
(DevOps is a broad description of a philosophy, or movement in which developers and IT operations staff communicate closely to improve IT service delivery agility.)
“For new features, we don’t need to do a full big bang change, instead, we make incremental changes allowing us to respond quickly to bug reports and user feedback.”
In fact, end users sometimes don’t even notice when incremental changes are being released.
Mr Aswani said: “Take Facebook, for example. They do hundreds of incremental releases everydayevery day, small changes that are pushed out quickly in a rolling fashion without any downtime.”
And contrary to popular perception, the Agile method delivers good quality work at a good pace.
As Mr Aswani puts it, “We are here for a marathon, not a sprint. We don’t want people to burn out.”
Nectar has been in development for roughly a year now, moving into prototyping and beta testing now.
‘Phase Two’ is due in June 2017 while ‘Phase Three’ in 2018.
In the current pilot phase, there are four government apps which will be deployed using Nectar.
“The Platform is developing in an agile way, as we are continuously working on it. These milestones allow us to validate the service levels we can provide.”
Nectar was built by a multi-faceted, multi-talented team (of 25 people) that was built almost from scratch, comprising a mix of fresh graduates, experienced developers, professionals in infrastructure and security, and UI/UX designers.
Mr Aswani said, “The team is very proud of winning the Award, but we couldn’t have done it without great support from Red Hat, the Open Source Community and our partner agencies including Ministry of Finance (MOF), Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) and the Smart Nation Programme Office (SNPO).”