the disruptive cloud

The recent announcement that Amazon has created a secure web space for the US government is hardly going to make anyone fall off their chair in surprise. Ensuring that cloud services can be used by governments has been the direction of travel for some time, with many potential vendors keen to ensure that government-specific security demands are catered for by commodity goods and services. The news is likely to provide fresh impetus to the plans to ensure that cloud services can be taken advantage of by the UK government – aka the G-Cloud programme.

During the recent House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee inquiry into Government IT, the Cloud Industry Forum set out three benefits that users could take from cloud computing:

  • Financial: there are no upfront infrastructure costs and it operates on as “pay as you go” basis so the user only pays for what they use;
  • Managerial: it is easier to increase or decrease resources depending on the need, with reduced IT management overheads as you no longer need to run your own data centre; and
  • Productivity: files can be accessed anywhere, and increased resilience (as you do not rely on a single data system) means less downtime due to technical faults. (1)

We’ve seen over many years now UK universities taking advantage of cloud services, moving from in-house email systems to hosted cloud email services provided by third parties such as Google and Microsoft. Doing so has freed them from the need to expend precious resources running commodity IT services in-house as they have recognised and adopted the reality of IT as a utility. Elsewhere in the public sector Westminster City Council has recognised the value of shared commodity services across traditional stovepipe boundaries.

In the private sector, we’ve also seen established brownfield enterprises such as the Telegraph Group and Jaguar Land Rover move large chunks of their operations into the cloud, reportedly with success. Seeing large existing enterprises, not just new start-ups, make successful use of cloud computing provides encouraging evidence that governments’ ambitions can also be realised.

Another aspect of the interest in cloud computing is its potential to inject a major disruption into the supply chain that currently operates around IT goods and services in government. Informal examples quoted in private suggest a significant improvement in services over the current, intermediated  systems integrator model, and a dramatic reduction in costs per user, where cloud computing has been adopted.

Some figures I have been quoted in confidence indicate a drop in costs of over £5,000 per user. Scale even a pessimistic half of that type of saving across government, and you begin to understand just how disruptive this model could be.

The UK’s G-Cloud programme has matured since its original inception. Today, the programme is largely about ensuring open and consistent interoperability standards; the smart re-use of public sector assets and the ability to handle its occasional peaks in demand much more cost-effectively than at present; ensuring appropriate levels of security and privacy; and developing clear SLAs around key issues such as service quality and availability. The programme will help enable the development of a competitive marketplace in trusted, secure and resilient services from shared utility platforms, enabling government to gain significant economies of scale and to run their services at maximum cost efficiency. (2)

Precisely which information and services can be migrated to the cloud will depend on a robust review of security requirements, with current thinking suggesting that information rated at IL3 or above will be retained with the government network, and that at IL 2 or below transferred to the cloud. (3)

The challenge to the existing IT supply chain can be seen in the way that some have aimed to muddle the idea of cloud computing with the issue of data centre rationalisation. They are very different things. Driving cost and inefficiency out of existing IT operations is of course also required, reflected in Francis Maude’s evidence to PASC which stated the need for

“consolidating and reducing our data centre estate, which is massive and massively underused. The first thing you should do is be saying across Government you may not just have your own silo data centre; we are going to crunch down what the estate looks like and ensure that it is much more intensively used.”

Driving out duplication, inefficiencies and waste, and taking advantage of virtualisation through a rationalisation of what already exists, will provide further savings from existing operations. During his evidence, Andy Burton (Chair of the Cloud Industry Forum), reported that most government data centres are:

using 20% of the capability and you have this replicated multiple times because you always build software solutions that scale to your peak demands; you are building capacity for your income tax returns on 31 January or whatever it is, but on the other 364 days of the year, it is running at a lower level. (4)

Cloud computing on its own is of course no more a magic answer than any other IT model or technology. It’s just another tool in the effective CIO’s kitbag. I anticipate seeing a much wider programme of IT reform in the UK government, turning the recent ICT strategy into a robust and measurable delivery plan, of which cloud is but a single element alongside other important initiatives such as data centre rationalisation and consolidation.

Throughout this all, of course we must also keep the main objective in mind: the delivery of better public services.

(1) Written evidence to the PASC inquiry. Submission 24 para 2.3

(2) Written evidence to the PASC inquiry. Submission 56

(3) Written evidence to the PASC inquiry. Submission 56

(4) Oral evidence to the PASC inquiry. Q 227

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