Is public cloud the answer to everything in government transformation?

Profile picture for user Iain Patterson By Iain Patterson November 27, 2018
Whilst he worked at the DVLA, Iain Patterson’s goal was to deliver benefits for civil servants and the ability to implement changes faster and at lower cost. Now as Chief Digital Officer at UKCloud, he explains more about that journey and answers some of the most pressing questions on the future of Government Transformation.

As outlined in an earlier part of this blog series, culturally, public sector organisations have a deep, embedded resistance to change and an aversion to risk. Such cultural challenges were exacerbated by technological misperceptions of cloud that were based on a lack of understanding of the technology; concerns over data security; fear of losing control; and fear of change.

In the past, cloud anxiety might have underpinned the belief that certain services could not be moved to the cloud because they were business critical. The Cloud First policy was meant to help overcome this. After all, almost everything could be viewed as business critical when it comes to public services. Another barrier used to be the fear of losing control. Understanding where data actually resides and clarify respective areas of responsibility with clear SLAs can help, but however and wherever workloads are managed, the IT department remains ultimately responsible for ensuring that any and all public sector IT services are secure, stable, resilient and available. After all, even if the day-to-day responsibility has been shifted to someone else, when something goes wrong the blame still comes back to them.

Fear of change comes from a lack of understanding or certainty as much as from a loss of control. The move to cloud is a significant transformation for any organisation. It is more than ‘just an IT project’ as it represents a fundamental change to the way the organisation, and all its staff, will operate. Patterson worked hard to overcome any such resistance in his time at the DVLA and thereafter at CTS (Common Technology Services), but he believes that in general:

“Much of the resistance, rather than coming from within the IT departments themselves, comes directly from the top. Permanent Secretaries are loathed to give up control over what they’re accountable for or even give up any control over the mechanism and levers that may have an impact on this.

“I can hardly blame them though, as they are also trapped into the processes and outdated mechanisms which they in turn have inherited. They are not, by nature or training, expert change agents. They look at policy and, in turn, they run mission critical operations which keep the country working.”

The systems deployed are fragile and therefore change is the biggest risk that these Perm Secs and their teams encounter. The rules and processes mean that the very senior of Civil Service executives are liable for massive exposure over operational issues, and are likely to be stood in front of a Parliamentary Accounts Committee.

Consequently, they naturally want to ensure that they are independent and in full control of their own destiny. Operating by sharing solutions with many departments, owned by a department that they can’t control is not something that comes

Public cloud isn’t a panacea

With GDS moving beyond its initial ‘Cloud First’ mantra to state that public cloud is appropriate for almost all public sector workloads, Patterson believes that the overall argument in favour of cloud has now been broadly accepted. He is keen to debunk a few myths though:

“There was a rush to cloud without any real understanding of data pathways nor of the legacy architecture that formed the basis of the Government Departments. We are in danger of just separating the application layer and putting apps in the cloud while still being tethered to the rules and databases of legacy applications.

“If we neglect to rework rules logic and data, and also overlook the security implications of doing so, then we are storing up real problems for the future. Also putting services on the cloud, which the public can access, opens us up to threats from users’ personal devices and their applications – providing a point of entry for fraudsters.”

Monitoring is needed with cyber-security built in from the start, and with data structures and clear taxonomies defined in the design, prior to implementation. Patterson also cautions against a full swing from public cloud aversion to public cloud adulation, stating that public cloud isn’t a panacea and that while it has a significant role to play, it certainly isn’t the answer to everything. It needs to be considered and architected correctly, and appropriately.

Given the legacy challenges encumbering many parts of the public sector, he advocates a pragmatic move to the cloud. He sees a continuing need to host many legacy workloads, while focusing on cloud native environments for new workloads.

He doesn’t see a role for multiple separate departmental private cloud instances though, instead favouring ventures such as the recently announced Crown Campus, a secure government-grade hosting environment for public sector framework service providers supported by Crown Hosting Data Centres Limited (the joint venture
between the Cabinet Office and Ark Data Centres).Patterson said:

“Given their diverse, heterogeneous estates, including significant legacy systems, I doubt that we will be seeing any departments go all in on public cloud any time soon.

“If Crown Campus can provide a secure environment for their diverse needs and enable greater collaboration, while enabling workloads to be pragmatically moved to the cloud, then that’s all for the good.”

Data gravity

One key advantage for public sector bodies from hosting workloads in close proximity in this way is data gravity, which is the way that certain key data sets attract applications, services, and other data. Often software, services, and business logic cluster around certain key data sets that are particularly massive or important.

There can be a real advantage in being located physically closer to these key data sets. For example, Genomics England, the largest single health data set in the UK, is hosted by UKCloud Health on the Crown Campus along with a number of
key hospital trusts.

This has attracted a growing ecosystem of service providers to the UKCloud Health platform, which has in turn attracted further partners, customers, and data sets. Located in close proximity to each other, they all benefit from secure, low-latency connectivity and increased scope for collaboration.

In addition, when it comes to optimal workload placement, there is no one-size- fits-all cloud approach. Customers need a secure, compliant, and cost appropriate solution that meet the demands of their organisation and provides a best fit for each workload.

Within an array of legacy and cloud native applications, a multi-cloud approach can provide the most comprehensive and effective solution. Further out, once the reliance on legacy systems is overcome, Patterson sees public cloud, or a combination of public clouds, as the ultimate destination.

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