National Informatics Centre (NIC) is a premier scientific organisation, and is an attached office under the Indian government’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY). NIC has played a pivotal role in establishing the ICT and e-governance infrastructure and services across the country. NIC manages one of the largest government wide area networks (WANs) in the world, which connects the length and breadth of India. NIC has also set up one of the largest research and education networks in the world, known as National Knowledge Network (NKN), which connects Indian research and educational institutions with Europe, South East Asia, and North America.

NIC is the primary pillar for developing and implementing e-governance applications, services and manages cybersecurity for the Indian government. With a background of more than four decades of ICT and e-governance experience and expertise, NIC was tasked with leading the development of India’s COVID-19 contact tracing app, Aarogya Setu, which is the most downloaded contact tracing App in the world. The app has been released for Android, KaiOS, and iOS platforms. The code for the app has been released in the open domain and also provides syndromic mapping and a self-assessment digital service.

Rolling out the world’s fastest-growing app in 15 Days

It was early March, and celebration was in the air. Thousands of people across the country were getting ready to celebrate the ancient Hindu festival of Holi, while more and more COVID-19 cases in the country began to emerge. Rahul Goyal, Senior Vice President of travel ticketing site Goibibo, and Vikalp Sahni, the company’s Co-founder and CTO, became worried.

“There was talk about the need for social distancing in order to prevent a widespread COVID-19 outbreak, but Holi is the absolute opposite of social distancing: Thousands of people were congregating to celebrate this beautiful festival of spring,” recalls Sahni, co-founder and CTO of Goibibo.

That’s when Deep Kalra, Founder & Group CEO of Go-MMT, decided to take the proof of concept built to collaborate with the government of India, and the Indian tech community, to begin development of the country’s COVID-19 contact tracing app, Aarogya Setu.

The digital first responders of the pandemic

As soon as the country went into lockdown, the government, along with the individual volunteers from industry and academia, started working on the design and development of a contact tracing app. The team worked on a tight deadline.

“Technology projects in India can be a double-edged sword—they are either highly effective or can cause major disaster if they do not foster engagement and buy-in from the majority of the population,” recalls a senior government official of NIC.

“Initially, India was very cocooned from the pandemic, but one day we woke up and realised that we weren’t as well-insulated as we thought we were. We didn’t have the luxury of reacting to the pandemic slowly, which is why we were very fortunate to have a team of brilliant minds support the country during this time,” the official says.

The development team took just 15 days to create the app’s architecture and software development, with the initial rollout taking place on the 2nd of April.

Scaling success

The rollout was just the first step in a long road ahead. The development team needed to ensure that they could handle the rapid growth of the app’s popularity, with performance, scalability, and responsiveness essential to the project. 

At one point, the contact tracing app recorded 7 million server requests in just one minute.

An early adopter and long-term customer of New Relic, Sahni looked to the vendor for observability support, with the government of India joining New Relic’s COVID-19 relief program. The program provides 90 days of full-stack observability, support that has since been extended for an additional three months for Aarogya Setu.

Knowing that the team needed to be prepared for a huge wave of demand, the government official felt that visibility into their technology and user experience was essential as the app became widely adopted.

“With a rollout at this size and scale, not having effective monitoring and visibility would have meant that we wouldn’t have been able to live up to the expectations of our citizens,” she recalls.

"Technology rollouts will tend to fail at one point or another, but the most important thing is how quickly businesses can bounce back from these failures. New Relic allowed us to identify gaps of where we could have done better, and ensured that any issues that occurred were addressed quickly."

Senior Official,The Government of India’s National Informatics Centre

“Technology rollouts will tend to fail at one point or another, but the most important thing is how quickly businesses can bounce back from these failures. New Relic allowed us to identify gaps of where we could have done better, and ensured that any issues that occurred were addressed quickly,” says the official.

Aarogya Setu was one of the first contact tracing apps to be rolled out globally, beating South Korea, whose app was in development, and Singapore, who hadn’t yet finalsed plans for the rollout of its highly successful TraceTogether app. Aarogya Setu had 50 million downloads in just 13 days; surpassing a previous record set by Pokémon GO.

In order to quell any concerns around the app’s security or privacy, NIC made its source code public in May, and Aarogya Setu’s uptake continued to grow, reaching more than 100 million installs in just 40 days, and being used to successfully identify more than 3,000 COVID-19 hotspots.

Rising to the challenge

Today, the app is being used by 10% of India’s population, with 140 million people downloading it. The team hopes to roll out the app to the entire country, with Sahni saying that the visibility provided by New Relic has proved invaluable. It has allowed his teams to confidently scale their services, push changes quickly, and continually monitor the end-user experience. Not only can the team react and respond to demands, but they can also proactively improve their app and technology stack.

“You can only get through the challenge of scale when you have the right observability, which is where New Relic came in to support us. The unprecedented scale at which we were operating and the reliability expected would not have been efficiently dealt with, without the support of New Relic,” recalls Sahni.

“There were times when our error rates increased, so when we looked at our dashboards and developed an understanding of where things were going wrong, we understood what needed to be done and how to fix issues as they emerged,” Sahni says.