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Directgov farms out web content across Europe

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Updated The UK government’s internet portal that serves as a one-stop public services shop for British citizens caches its website at locations throughout the European Union, The Register has learned.

Directgov, whose content management system, hosting and managed service is maintained by NTT Europe Online, operates from “primary servers” in the UK where content for the site is initially created, modified and published.

However, it doesn’t end there. The government’s portal additionally has a number of “network caches” that bounce the web content back and forth between data centres in the EU.

“To enable Directgov to provide a robust, resilient and reliable service the infrastructure used to host the website makes use of a number of 'network caches', which hold the web content and send it to your browser without always having to access the 'Primary' servers,” explained a Directgov spokesman.

“To ensure resilience in the event of any network or component not working, these 'caches' are located in several different data centres located throughout the European Union.”

El Reg contacted Directgov after reader Neil alerted us to the fact that he couldn’t resolve the website’s IP address to a UK location, despite several attempts.

“I flushed all my local cache first too,” said Neil who reasonably asked the question: “Why the heck would the UK government's portal be in France?”

Similar checks carried out at Vulture Central led us to server locations in Germany.

According to the Directgov spokesman, the addresses that resulted via various queries would have been the “network caches” used by NTT. And apparently - for Directgov at least - that is normal practice.

“It is entirely for the provider to decide how and where the service is delivered, in the case of hosting through NTT - provided that the government's stringent security measures are followed,” he said.

NTT, in partnership with Xansa, won the £6m contract to provide a content management system, hosting and support for Directgov’s managed service in June 2006.

The company, which is owned by NTT Communications Corporation, has data centres in London, Paris, Madrid, Frankfurt and Geneva.

We asked the Directgov spokesman why it was necessary for the web content to be farmed out to locations elsewhere in Europe.

“Directgov is responsible for securing best value for money for UK citizens,” he said.

Switch maker Cisco describes network caching as a "technique of keeping frequently accessed information in a location close to the requester."

The cache stores web pages and content on a storage device that is either "physically or logically closer to the user", or is closer and faster than a web lookup.

Such a method can help reduce traffic on WAN links and on busy web servers, all of which is good for ISPs, big networks, and even end users, in helping to speed response times.

But the downside for some is that potentially sensitive government data could end up cached abroad. Meanwhile, Directgov prides itself on being a portal that puts "public services all in one place"... ®

Update

Directgov's CTO David Matthewman contacted us to clarify what data is stored on its servers.

"We don't actually store any government data or personal data with one very small exception," he said.

"If someone emails our helpdesk with a question about the site then we store their email address for a couple of months until the question has been answered."

Matthewman added that the risk of government data getting into the wrong hands via the Directgov portal was therefore "incredibly negligible."

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