UKCloud had been going as business for just shy of 10 years which is when they spotted the opportunity to start offering dedicated cloud services specifically to UK government departments and the public sector.
Up to that time cloud services for the public sector were based very much around large scale contracts, long-running large infrastructure deployments, and everything else that was ‘big’.
But as David Woolger, the company’s Director of Technology Strategy, points out, the first services UKCloud offered went in the opposite direction, providing customers with Infrastructure-as-a-Service delivered on a VMware-based platform. This gave customers the tools they needed to create and manage their virtual machines and their virtual networking, on demand:
A customer could come onto the platform and create their virtual machine at three o'clock in the morning if they so chose, and turn it off as six o'clock in the morning, without having to go through a formal change control, getting people to go out into the data centrer etc. So we're basically very much delivering on that agility to allow the government and various digital exemplar projects to progress and not worry about the underlying infrastructure.
Since VMware the company has transitioned through a number of technologies, including Dell EMC, before coming to the decision that it no longer wanted to migrate infrastructure on disk. Instead it sought out a storage platform that could underpin the cloud platform. The result of the selection process was Platform-as-a-Service from Pure Storage. The next decision after that was whether the company should take it on as a CapEx purchase or sign up for it as a subscription service.
In the end, the company went for both, as it needed two different types of Pure storage arrays to meet customer requirements - an X-Plus array for mission critical workloads requiring very fast response times, and a C-Class array, which offers far more capacity at a lower price point, but slightly slower performance. It is now increasingly common for customers to want to shift workloads between these two storage tiers and part of UKCloud’s key management function is to manage the arbitrage between them.
Making the move to Pure has, however, eased one important business pressure for the company, as Woolger points out:
Our multiple modus operandi up until recently has always been to own the infrastructure, effectively a CapEx purchase. However, the entire way our revenues from customers are driven is on a monthly basis, so we almost have a preference, if possible, to align our costs with when we're getting the money from customers. This was where the appeal for Platform-as-a-Service initially came from.
Another financial attraction is what Pure Storage calls its ‘evergreen’ subscriptions. This is where, every three years, the company upgrades the system controllers, giving customers all the latest developments and operational improvements. Woolger expects this to provide a significant extension to the lifecycle of the storage, perhaps even taking what would normally be a three-year lifetime out as far as 10 years:
So there are some costs in there - it might be that you want to move from one flash technology to another flash technology - but it's not the big forklift costs that we had seen famously or being quoted previously by some of the other vendors.
Woolger suggestes that UKCloud is a practical example of how the cloud has advanced the democratisation of data, arguing that the primary objective of making it far easier for users to both access and work with their own data, and collaborate with other complementary businesses, has been part of its core pitch since it was set up. It also formed a part of the underpinning ethos of the development of G-Cloud, which targeted the traditional position of government departments not communicating with each other unless there was a necessary and legitimate business reason.
This was particularly the case when dealing with the public, where there have been some well-received about-faces over recent years – with the DVLA often cited as a shining example. Where the driving licence database used to be held centrally and largely disconnected, it is now not only open to the public to work with directly, but the data is seen as being owned by the drivers the database covers.
UKCloud was part of the infrastructure that underpinned this, a use case that is still developing. For example, some people are effectively starting to act as service providers of their own data. Some are providing their genome sequencing, and are acting as that service provider to allow researchers to come in and query their specific data.
The DVLA itself is also a good example of the growing reach of that collaboration, as it now reaches out with direct links to vehicle insurance companies to ensure that excise licence payments are tied to vehicles that are insured to be on the road. Similarly, HMRC is starting to work with external commercial organisations such as credit brokers.
A platform beckons
UKCloud does not normally play an active part in how the users manage their data. They own it, and so they are responsible for how it’s structured, managed and curated and are responsible for all the GDPR searches or whatever else that comes in. But scope is growing for the company to start growing from delivering just an infrastructure to offering more a platform offering business-related service, says Woolger:
What we do see is an increasing requirement for the Big Data/data analytics side of things, and that's an area that we're starting to form a service around, effectively the data lifecycle management side of things. That's very much to go out and help those customers. But because it's their data, that is not necessarily something that we see we should be taking ownership of. We can go in and we can assist customers, but fundamentally it’s like going into someone's house and saying, ‘We're going to paint the walls for you and we're going to decide the color’.
This is one area where offering customers the resources as a service makes sense, since lifecycle management is a task with a high degree of universality across the range of users, especially when they are all part of a larger organization such as a national government. The company is currently in the process of developing a lifecycle management proposition, and is keeping an eye on other possible process functions that offer a high degree of commonality, regardless of the government department seeking the information.
This is an area where being a Pure Storage customer gives UKCloud some advantages, such as the availability of built-in deduplication services when copying databases. Woolger also sees the Pure FlashBlade technologies, which provide object storage capabilities, as offering significant potential for providing managed collaboration services. This would allow one UKCloud customer to give another customer direct access to relevant object storage records, but still own and control the keys to cut access off at any point.