For the last eight years, the technology transformation of the UK's Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been one of the most significant public sector change programmes to observe. The department has extracted itself from an outsourcing deal, launched new benefits, managed a pandemic, delivered new technology services to citizens, and today has a distinct digital arm.
Central to these seismic changes in operations has been the use of both public and private cloud computing. Paul Booth is Head of Hybrid Cloud Services at DWP, a DWP team tasked with utilising hybrid cloud computing across the department.
DWP’s Booth says 70% of its technology estate is in the cloud, and the remaining 30% resides on-premise. Booth explains:
We've spent the last two and half years with a real push into the cloud, but we have only moved work into the cloud that is appropriate, and that ensures we can leverage the benefits of the cloud.
All the systems that do payment processing, that interact with citizens, process claims and drive job market initiatives are either on the public cloud or the data centres that make up the private cloud.
Back in 2015, DWP signed its first hosting agreement with Crown Hosting Data Centres, a joint venture between the UK government and data centre provider Ark. Originally, DWP took on one data center room before adding another three in 2016. The relationship was extended by five years in June 2021.
The origins of the move to Crown Hosting can be traced to the coalition government of 2011 that demanded improved efficiency from government technology and a greater ability to change providers and/or technology.
DWP suffered from severe lock-in from those original outsourcing contracts, one of the greatest costs that the coalition government identified. As a result, Booth says eradicating lock-in has become cultural at DWP today:
One of the challenges of the cloud is that there are relative amounts of platform lock-in. So one of our founding pillars in Hybrid Cloud Services is portability. We have taken a specific route of adopting open-source where we can and standardising practices with automation and abstraction to get us to the point where we are not locked into the same level we were 10 years ago with the big system integrators.
A lot of the abstraction layers that we put in, whether it be Nutanix, Kubernetes or Docker, are all aimed at removing platform dependence.
Across DWP, MongoDB, Python, Java and Linux open source technologies abound. Software development has become increasingly important to DWP. There is a mantra across the department to not build where the market can supply, but Booth says this should also be analyzed through the lens of avoiding lock-in:
MongoDB Atlas is a good example as it is the best the market can supply in the form of a bundle of managed services which scales well and underpins a lot of what we do in Universal Credit (the UK's main benefits payment), but we always have the option to pull out.
The need for government departments to tightly manage costs never goes away, and hybrid cloud, managed by DWP using the Nutanix Cloud Platform, ensures the department gets more bang for its buck, in Booth's words:
We are always looking to optimize the mix of cloud computing that we can use, as ultimately we are not spending our money, we are spending taxpayers' money.
DWP Hybrid Cloud Services is, therefore, a user of Cloud FinOps, the financial framework for understanding and communicating cloud compute costs. Booth says:
FinOps saves us £35-40 million a year from an investment of half a million. FinOps is across both the on-premise and cloud estates.
DWP has largely avoided a lift-and-shift approach with its move to cloud computing. Refactoring applications and infrastructure has to be considered a constant stream of work, according to Booth:
I would say application modernization never stops. A lot of people look at technical debt through the same lens as they did 10 years ago, which is that it is something you can remove, fix or beat, but actually, it is something you live with and manage, so removing technical debt is a day-to-day role.
As with all organizations digitally transforming, DWP is dealing with a shortage in skills, though as the operator of the UK's job centers, DWP has been developing its own hybrid cloud engineers, Booth says:
Skills is a challenge for everyone. One of the things we did was to build a talent pipeline. So we do a lot of apprenticeships, training, personal development, and we retrain our own people. That way, we don't pick the apples from the barrel; we go to the tree.
The downside of that is that it takes time; we are just seeing the fruits of what we did two and a half years ago. You also have to keep going with the talent pipeline because it is similar to technical debt. You have to keep managing it, creating a great place to work, ensuring the work is interesting, challenging and rewarding.
I recall in 2008 the sheer size of the technology estate at DWP; it topped power lists as a result of that size. When experts truly looked under the hood, they discovered that size was bloat, and bloat that was locked in with no escape. Recent years have seen leadership and technology emerge from DWP that is outcome-focused, and there is user-centricity that was lacking in the early 2000s. A hybrid cloud approach demonstrates that the cloud has to fit the outcome, whether it be public or private.
Work and pensions are, ultimately, pragmatic decisions. So it is reassuring that the government department tasked with helping people gain employment and administering the national pension is pragmatic in its use of cloud computing. That's not to say it lacks ambition. Booth joined DWP from a career in software companies, including IRIS, and he says there are a number of similarities between DWP and software houses. If digital and the cloud infrastructure that underpins it is to achieve its possibilities, then a mix of ambition and pragmatism is welcome.