It comes as no surprise that the public sector is increasingly using cloud services; every report has found that same conclusion. Last year, the Cloud Industry Forum and UKCloud suggested that while organisations in the public sector were increasing their usage of cloud services, they were still focusing largely on ‘low hanging fruit’ – with 72% of those surveyed using cloud for just one or two services, and only two per cent saying it had been used for five or more.
But even then, the fact there was progress was cited as success. But at AWS Summit in London this month, a public sector track showed just how far organisations in the sector had come, as well as the growing interest from similar departments, bodies and councils.
As Chris Suter, cloud architect at NHS Business Services Authority (BSA) told Diginomica, compared to three years ago when there were 200 people at the same event there was a striking difference, with more than four times the number of attendees. He said:
You can see it’s really growing, the public sector is adopting cloud technology at rapid rates.
It’s worth noting that if this is the turnout at AWS, there will also be plenty of interest at Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud Platform events, among the many other cloud vendors out there.
But it wasn’t just the scale of interest that was notable at AWS Summit, but rather the number of customers with unique case studies.
One of the first public sector case studies for AWS in the UK was Transport for London (TfL), which runs its website on AWS, enabling it to scale up and down on capacity depending on usage – so if there’s a snow day or tube strikes, it can better cope with demand.
Peterborough City Council uses AWS as a central hub to pull together all the feeds and data coming in from weather stations, sensors and from people’s homes, while Aylesbury District Council initially used AWS to scale its website. Now, it is using machine learning and Alexa to engage with citizens – Citizens can ask Alexa when their rubbish is going to be picked up, or where they need to go to get their driver’s licence updated.
NHS BSA is using AWS Connect for its cloud-based contact centre, and deep learning chatbot services Amazon Lex to help improve user experience, increase efficiency and cut costs.
Then on perhaps the biggest scale, there is the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), which has embarked on a huge technology transformation programme.
Diptesh Patel, deputy director of hybrid cloud services at DWP Digital explained:
We had to make a decision to start to build out our own datacentres as well as hyperscale public scale provision.
He added that everything could not be transitioned to the public cloud because the organisation had to refactor applications and had to work with its product teams to gear up for that change.
In other words, DWP has built cloud foundations, so that it can provide integratable services, but it has had to manage this with much of the legacy infrastructure it has had in place for many years. It is however, running its most complex project, Universal Credit, on AWS, and it continues to migrate services from its new data centres to the public cloud.
So what’s changed?
Chris Hayman, head of UK&I public sector at AWS, suggested that the government’s ‘cloud-first’ policy introduced back in 2013, has been a big factor, as has the updated ‘public cloud first’ and ‘cloud native’ strategy launched last year. He said:
They’re really giving people to have the confidence that this is what they should be doing to help their citizens and to take care of the heavy lifting and reduce costs. We’ve got the G-Cloud framework as a procurement and acquisition vehicle so customers are able to buy cloud a lot easier.
Max Peterson, VP EMEA public sector at AWS , added another key difference has been the security and accreditation that AWS has been working on. He said:
We meet all of the security compliance regimes that are important in the UK now, and most recently we’ve met the requirements of the entire NHS, policing and the Ministry of Defence (MoD).
AWS began by setting the foundations in 2017, by having the PSN and the HSCN accreditations for direct network connections, as well as working on Cyber Essentials and setting the right frameworks with the National Cyber Security Centre so that customers can get an AWS environment off-the-shelf that meets the 14 cloud security principles.
In fact, it was this that spurred on NHS BSA to opt for cloud-based services. Suter explained:
The 14 cloud security principles unlocked the gates because it said ‘if you follow these guidelines then you’re absolutely fine’. This has since been backed up with the NHS Digital’s cloud computing guidance document which confirmed public cloud is cleared for use by NHS organisations. This opened the doors further, it said ‘it’s your responsibility, your data, do what you want within reason’.
But this NHS guidance, published in January, has come later than guidance for central government, and this means that it is still behind on cloud adoption.
With central government I think you’ve hit the tipping point as all of the foundation pieces are in, and you have customers who are either lifting and shifting mission systems to the cloud or replatforming mission systems to the cloud, and there are enough examples out there that other organisations can replicate.
But with the NHS, I think that wave is still coming in because they didn’t use the central government cloud policy and they had unique data localisation requirements. The same goes for policing.
Apples versus Oranges
Suter explained that from a technology point of view there are very low barriers to adopting cloud, but one of the biggest issues has been getting to grips with the financial side of things; moving from a Capex to Opex mindset. He said:
A two-year fixed contract for X amount of money is not the same as a scalable cloud system with peaks and troughs that you can’t predict as much, you can’t budget the same way.
The complexity of pricing has also proved a challenge for the University of York, with its CIO Heidi Fraser Krauss explaining that a simple tick of the box can see prices shooting up on AWS.
It’s not just pricing that requires a different mindset, but also the way staff work, if an organisation was to go all-in with cloud, according to Suter. He said:
It’s a big mindset shift as we can’t work for two to three months to get something to turn up – we can spin things up in a matter of minutes and services can be provisioned. The development teams would be taking an agile mindset and agile process in releasing applications.
Taking a step back from this, Darren Curry, chief digital officer at NHS BSA said that the key to cloud adoption was not to compare cloud with on-premise as they’re not like for like. He explained:
They’re two different things and you have to look at it that way. It’s about the speed with which you can deploy something and the wider benefits that it gives to deliver new projects and value to the user more quickly. Where as a managed service has to be created and right from day one with incremental changes.
It’s not just about cost, or in terms of compute power over the lifecycle – you can’t compare the two, they’re two different products.
But while they may be different products, some of the same issues could remain.
Krauss told delegates at AWS Summit that one of the key challenges with cloud was the idea that it was ‘plug and play’. She said:
You’re not going to move vendor, you are going to be locked in to some degree and therefore you need to make the right choice about who your partner is, you are not going to move every year or so.
In contrast, NHS BSA hopes that it can build an environment in which it can switch cloud providers when it wants to – within reason. Suter explained:
As long as you’ve built your environment as agnostically as possible, it should be straightforward.
The fact that there are now clear use cases, demonstrable successes (and failures) bodes well for the UK public sector – and what’s more, AWS’ Hayman and Peterson believe that the UK is ahead of the US in the public sector in the way that cloud is being used. It’s not just merely being used as a hosting mechanism, but in new ways that meet the demands of the specific government organisations in question.