4.4. Server hosting

The online deployment approach raises the question of where and how to host the server which will run the DHIS2 application. Typically there are several options:

  1. Internal hosting within the Ministry of Health

  2. Hosting within a government data centre

  3. Hosting through an external hosting company

The main reason for choosing the first option is often political motivation for having “physical ownership” of the database. This is perceived as important by many in order to “own” and control the data. There is also a wish to build local capacity for server administration related to sustainability of the project. This is often a donor-driven initiative as it is perceived as a concrete and helpful mission.

Regarding the second option, some places a government data centre is constructed with a view to promoting and improving the use and accessibility of public data. Another reason is that a proliferation of internal server environments is very resource demanding and it is more effective to establish centralized infrastructure and capacity.

Regarding external hosting there is lately a move towards outsourcing the operation and administration of computer resources to an external provider, where those resources are accessed over the network, popularly referred to as “cloud computing” or “software as a service”. Those resources are typically accessed over the Internet using a web browser.

The primary goal for an online server deployment is provide long-term stable and high-performance accessibility to the intended services. When deciding which option to choose for server environment there are many aspects to consider:

  1. Human capacity for server administration and operation. There must be human resources with general skills in server administration and in the specific technologies used for the application providing the services. Examples of such technologies are web servers and database management platforms.

  2. Reliable solutions for automated backups, including local off-server and remote backup.

  3. Stable connectivity and high network bandwidth for traffic to and from the server.

  4. Stable power supply including a backup solution.

  5. Secure environment for the physical server regarding issues such as access, theft and fire.

  6. Presence of a disaster recovery plan. This plan must contain a realistic strategy for making sure that the service will be only suffering short down-times in the events of hardware failures, network downtime and more.

  7. Feasible, powerful and robust hardware.

All of these aspects must be covered in order to create an appropriate hosting environment. The hardware requirement is deliberately put last since there is a clear tendency to give it too much attention.

Looking back at the three main hosting options, experience from implementation missions in developing countries suggests that all of the hosting aspects are rarely present in option one and two at a feasible level. Reaching an acceptable level in all these aspects is challenging in terms of both human resources and money, especially when compared to the cost of option three. It has the benefit that it accommodates the mentioned political aspects and building local capacity for server administration, on the other hand can this be provided for in alternative ways.

Option three - external hosting - has the benefit that it supports all of the mentioned hosting aspects at a very affordable price. Several hosting providers - of virtual servers or software as a service - offer reliable services for running most kinds of applications. Example of such providers are Linode and Amazon Web Services. Administration of such servers happens over a network connection, which most often anyway is the case with local server administration. The physical location of the server in this case becomes irrelevant in that such providers offer services in most parts of the world. This solution is increasingly becoming the standard solution for hosting of application services. The aspect of building local capacity for server administration is compatible with this option since a local ICT team can be tasked with maintaining the externally hosted server.

An approach for combining the benefits of external hosting with the need for local hosting and physical ownership is to use an external hosting provider for the primary transactional system, while mirroring this server to a locally hosted non-critical server which is used for read-only purposes such as data analysis and accessed over the intranet.