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NHS tears out its Oracle Spine in favour of open source

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The UK government's quest to get public services to use more open source technologies seems to be taking hold, judging by the revamp of the NHS's very large Spine service.

The upgrade from Spine to Spine2 will see the NHS shift the core of its main secure patient database and messaging platform from Oracle onto a bevy of open source technologies including the Riak datastore, Redis, Nginx, Tornado, and RabbitMQ, along with some proprietary technologies like Splunk. Riak developer Basho announced the plans on Wednesday. This also sees it enlist a Brit IT contractor named BJSS to help with the rollout, as opposed to a much larger mega-consultancy.

"While this [use of open source] is now fairly common practice at the application tier, the ability to have a resilient, distributed data storage tier on the same commodity hardware makes a significant contribution to the cost efficiency of this solution," Mark Pullen, chief software engineer for BJSS, told El Reg via email.

Spine2 is built on Spine, which was one of the two successful components built under the disastrous NHS National Programme for IT (NPfIT) boondoggle.

Spine supports patient programmes like Choose & Book, Electronic Prescription Service, Summary Care Record, and others. Spine2 will build on this to become a system that all other NHS services are designed to be able to hook into and use for communication and data storage. It is being designed to hold some 90 million patient records, and support 200,000 users.

The shift of Spine from a closed-source proprietary project managed by BT to one dealt with through a bevy of open source technologies fits with the Department of Health's IT Strategy called The Power of Information which mandates the adoption of open standards to increase interoperability and interconnectivity between government services.

Spine2 will involve a "complete redesign of the hardware, software and code," according to the NHS.

The redesign has been done both to bring down the cost of the deployment, and also to increase the flexibility of the system to make it easier for third-party suppliers to test against and offer complementary services to Spine.

It will use Riak for data persistence; Python, redis, RabbitMQ, and Tornado for its application layer; Ubuntu, HA Proxy, NGiNX, and Puppet for modifying the infrastructure, and Mustache and Flask for presentation layers. Its principal development language is Python, with a bit of Erlang and Javascript, Pullen said.

The system will involve hundreds of processors running across dozens of "1U commodity servers running Linux and using dual Xeon E5-2430 processors" in multiple data centers, Pullen tells us.

Spine2 is due to go live in 2014, and when it does one of the largest backbone systems for NHS IT will be running primarily open source infrastructure technologies, and – for once – Brit tax dosh won't be going directly to one of the mega IT giants. ®

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