Government cloud strategy goes native and public first

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez February 6, 2017
It’s been almost four years since the launch of the government’s official cloud first strategy. After a quiet period, it seems that a new emphasis is being place on cloud.

The UK government has released some new details about its cloud strategy, stating that it is now ‘public cloud first’ and ‘cloud native’. The additional detail comes some six years after the original cloud strategy for government and almost four years after the government’s cloud first commitment.

Central to this original strategy was the creation of the G-Cloud framework, which allows the public sector to buy cloud products and services ‘off the shelf’. The G-Cloud has now reached over £1.5 billion in sales - a success by many measures, but still a fraction of public sector IT spend.

However, in recent months some have questioned the government’s commitment to its cloud agenda, particularly in the absence of the long awaited digital strategy, which was due out before Christmas (and has been promised for over a year), but was pulled at the last minute by the Prime Minister’s office.

It’s also worth reiterating that a lot has changed since the government’s last cloud strategy (March 2011), which at the very least deserves a refresh, if not an entire rethink. Departments and buyers need a central framework to work from.

So, what’s new?

Public cloud first

The original cloud first strategy was fairly controversial at the time. The US had already introduced a similar policy, but some in the UK felt that it was a ‘bit too much stick’, at a time when departments were already under pressure to cut costs and were being hit hard by the centre.

That being said, although G-Cloud’s sales have soared in recent years, it’s fair to say that a lot of buying doesn’t abide by the cloud-rule. And that’s probably because the cloud first policy was pretty lax in its definition and its requirements. It stated:

In future, when procuring new or existing services, public sector organisations should consider and fully evaluate potential cloud solutions first – before they consider any other option. This approach is mandated to central government and strongly recommended to the wider public sector. Departments will remain free to choose an alternative to the cloud if they can demonstrate that it offers better value for money.

The original cloud strategy document also states public cloud “will not be possible in every case and there will also be a requirement for a private G-Cloud”.

However, on Friday, the government released some policy guidance in relation to the cloud first policy. And whilst it does still state that alternatives to cloud will be allowed if they offer value for money (the best mix of quality and effectiveness for the least outlay), it is becoming more firm on its definition of what ‘cloud’ is.

Simply put, it doesn’t want to see private or hybrid cloud as part of first considerations. Buyers should be considering public cloud as its first option. The guidance states:

By Cloud First, we mean the public cloud rather than a community, hybrid or private deployment model. There are circumstances where the other deployment models are appropriate but the primary benefits for government come when we embrace the public cloud. Departments are encouraged to initially consider Software as a Service models, particularly for their enterprise IT and back office functions.

Where bespoke development is necessary, departments should make use of public cloud hosting. This is an evolving area, which started with ‘Infrastructure as a Service’, and is changing with the development of ‘Platform as a Service’ (PaaS) offerings. The GOV.UK PaaS offers government digital teams a means to cloud host their services. The GOV.UK Trade Tariff service has blogged about how it is using GOV.UK PaaS.

Departments should always source a cloud provider that fits their needs, rather than selecting a provider based on recommendation.

Cloud Native

Steps into blue sky with clouds, sun © kraft2727 -
(© kraft2727 -
Further to the public cloud first document, the Government Digital Service released a blog post last week entitled ‘Clarifying our Cloud First Commitment’, in which it stated that internally it has begun to move away from the phrase ‘cloud first’, towards thinking in terms of ‘cloud native’.

The blog post says that “cloud first is the policy we’ve agreed, but it’s not our aspiration”.

Essentially the idea behind becoming cloud native is that the architecture of government allows departments to plug and play different services and applications as and when it needs them. It’s about thinking about the outcomes of what a buyer needs and then using cloud as an entire architecture to redesign processes.

The post reads:

Cloud Native is one of those terms that has a lot of different definitions, with the more narrow definition encompassing patterns for application design, deployment and operation. We use the term more broadly to include the flexible adoption of Software as a Service (SaaS) applications, which are often loosely coupled and quite task specific.

Cloud Native is not just about considering cloud before other options, it’s about adapting how we organise our work to really take advantage of what’s on offer and what’s emerging.

At the infrastructure and application level we should expect our applications to be resilient, flexible and API-driven. We should have the tools and practices in place to manage and secure a distributed range of tools accessed over the internet.

We should empower everyone in an organisation to help us become more effective in technology by letting any staff member trial new SaaS applications. Our management and security practices should support this approach. We should look for an API-centric approach that will let us easily integrate new SaaS applications into the rest of our architectures.

Unless we adapt how we adopt technologies and focus on core outcomes and principles we won’t be able to meet the growing expectations of our users’ (including our staff), and we won’t be preparing for even deeper changes that are likely to come as we deal with ever growing volumes of data, and a proliferation of devices and sensors.

The Government Digital Service added that it will be blogging more about what this means in practice going forward and will be hiring a new Chief Technical Architect to deliver on this work.

My take

All of this is sensible stuff from GDS. The government should be looking at public cloud first at every opportunity, and in doing so it should be considering the entire architecture of how it delivers services. I think it’s particularly interesting that GDS is urging departments to let any member of staff trial new SaaS applications when they see fit.

However, as I stated above, it’s been years since we’ve had a thorough cloud strategy from the government and this sort of rhetoric is long overdue. The documents need updating and we need some clear mandates from GDS.

In addition to this - as someone pointed out to me earlier - where are the case studies and the best practice examples? I don’t believe I’ve ever had GDS come to me with an example of how they’ve worked with a department to go cloud native. We need more of those too.