There’s no getting away from it; the buzz around cloud computing has been growing at a rate of knots over the last couple of years. A quick Google search reveals that there are about 23 million references to “cloud computing” on the internet, with around 285,000 of these originating in the UK.
The buzz grew to an almost deafening pitch in June as the government announced plans to develop a public sector cloud computing infrastructure, or ‘G Cloud’, as part of the Digital Britain strategy published by the Department for Culture Media and Sport. And Britain’s not alone. Vivek Kundra the new White House CIO has been touting cloud computing as a tool for enabling the Obama administration to modernise the federal government’s ICT infrastructure and services.
So, what does it mean in practice? Plans for the ‘G Cloud’ centre on the delivery of a secure shared computing platform that can be used across the public sector – no mean feat given that the public sector employs upwards of five million people.
According to the final Digital Britain report: “cloud computing is a model of shared network-delivered services, both public and private, in which the user sees only the service or application, and need not worry about the implementation or infrastructure.”
This means that the cloud “offers the ability to treat IT as a ubiquitous, on-demand service” offering public sector customers the flexibility to consume as much or as little as needed. The implication is that improved services can be delivered at a lower cost and with less impact on the environment.
But will it really improve public services while making them cheaper, what Michael Cross once referred to in the Guardian as a “kind of technological alchemy”? The answer, according to Steve Hogkinson of analyst firm Ovum is yes, at least in theory. Writing in Ovum’s daily update Straight Talk, Hodgkinson says: “cloud logic is all about creating a shared service platform that agency customers choose to use – because it is easier, better and cheaper than the alternatives.” But he acknowledges this won’t be easy. If cloud computing is to deliver on its promise there will need to be a whole new approach to IT across the public sector.
Intellect’s Public Sector Council, the senior industry body for the technology industry, has been working with the government’s CIO Council to develop a roadmap for the delivery of the cloud – looking at server and storage virtualisation, systems management automation, image management, and self-service provisioning – and on finalising and implementing the strategy. Julian David, Vice Chair of the Intellect Public Sector Council, says: “The work industry has been doing with government CIOs has shown that this approach will produce major savings in the government’s IT costs, deliver significant reductions in power and cooling requirements and make a great contribution to achieving environmental targets. The new infrastructure will also be more resilient and flexible.”
A ‘G Cloud’ provides a new opportunity for sharing across government, one in which the user’s experience is enhanced, where prices are flexible and where services can be rolled out rapidly in a virtual environment. There is also an aspiration to create a government applications store – that could operate in much the same way that applications for Facebook and iPhone work, and which could enable different parts of the public sector to explore innovative new ways of doing things. This will be particularly important as citizens’ uptake of online services continues to grow, which is likely to cause increasingly unpredictable peaks in requirements of access, which will demand a more resilient and robust infrastructure.
All this could help make the marketplace for technology across government more open and competitive, while supporting and encouraging the adoption of higher levels of standardisation and sharing. This would mean that a whole range of suppliers, including SMEs, would be able to provide services on the back of the government’s own standardised and secure infrastructure. The costs of doing business with government would be dramatically reduced if suppliers no longer had to establish and accredit their own infrastructure.
If the government is to make this vision a reality it will need to tackle a number of important challenges, none of which can be done overnight. It will need to secure the infrastructure, which will depend on funding for investment in technical development and physical facilities. And while proponents of the use of cloud computing in the private sector have talked about the benefits of running services off servers anywhere in the world, this presents a whole range of issues for a government that has its own raft of requirements around data location, security, data recovery, availability and reliability.
Although, successfully delivering the G-Cloud would put Britain at the leading edge of public service delivery. And while the standardisation of application testing and certification processes is likely to be a challenge, commercial Software as a Service models could help show the way.
John Suffolk, the government CIO, has been contributing to the debate on a Google Group known as the Cloud Computing Interoperability Forum. Suffolk’s posts include references to the work going on in government around standardising desktop design; rationalising network provision through the Public Sector Network programme and data centre utilisation; establishing the government’s open source, standards and re-use strategy; and linking this with the Greening Government IT and Information Assurance strategies. He says this is all evidence of what the government has been doing to prepare for a new era of cloud computing. He also suggests that public sector organisations should look to procure ICT services on a scalable, cloud basis so that they can share new capabilities with other bodies. Cooperation and collaboration between public sector organisations is a clearly a laudable aim, but it will depend on the right incentives being in place and clear communications about short, medium and long term benefits of a cloud-based approach.
The consensus is certainly that things are changing fast. News that Martin Bellamy has been brought on board at the Cabinet Office to develop the government’s cloud computing strategy means that it’s being taken seriously in Whitehall. The government needs to embrace innovative new technologies that can help to transform citizens’ lives in much the same way that it has changed their lives as consumers.
The recession and the impact it will have on public sector spending over the next decade presents some massive challenges for the delivery of public services, but it might also provide opportunities. An opportunity to look at the bigger picture and identify what’s really important: enabling the government to focus on improving the services that they deliver in a holistic way across departments and organisations. There’s no such thing as a magic bullet, but by helping the government to deliver more with less, cloud computing represents a big step in the right direction.
Intellect is the UK trade association for the technology industry. The Intellect Public Sector Council brings together senior figures from the top suppliers of IT goods and services to the UK public sector in a unique forum for cooperation and leadership in industry, guiding Intellect’s engagement with public sector bodies such as HM Treasury, the Cabinet Office and Office of Government Commerce, as well as other influencers and stakeholders. The Public Sector Council’s main areas of focus include sustaining a health IT industry in the UK; improving the quality of delivery; and working with the government to achieve better outcomes for citizens.