Rule Britannia #2 - Microsoft claims UK public sector cloud data center first alongside MoD

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan September 7, 2016
Summary:
Microsoft's opened its UK data center cloud doors to the public sector. It's a helpful announcement, but does it really stand up to the 'first global provider' claims the firm is making - with some government assistance?

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The battle for the cloud heart, mind and budget of the UK government sector escalated earlier this week with Microsoft making the bold claim to be the “first global provider to deliver complete cloud from UK data centers”.

The firm trotted out the Ministry of Defence (MoD) among other public sector clients to back it up, as well as winning support from the UK government’s National Technology Advisor.

Microsoft said its Azure cloud platform and Office365 cloud-based productivity suite are available now from data centers in London, Durham and Cardiff. Dynamics CRM Online will follow in the first half of 2017.

The MoD, which employs about 250,000 people, is the flagship public sector customer to date, with a plan to shift the entire department onto Office 365 within one calendar year. According to MoD chief digital and information officer Mike Stone:

Microsoft’s secure and transparent cloud service in the UK fits perfectly with the MOD’s digital transformation agenda. This agreement, which is based on Microsoft’s world-class reliability and performance, will allow us to deliver cost-effective, modern and flexible information capabilities. It will ensure we are better-placed in our ever-changing, digital-first world.

Initially MoD staff will not be allowed to store classified documents on Microsoft’s cloud, but that restriction could be relaxed over time, Stone told the BBC:

Even though legally, we can keep all of our data anywhere in the European Union, when it came to defence information, it did not feel right to me that it was stored outside the UK.

He added that while the MoD was a Microsoft customer, it had fallen behind the times:

We were still on Windows XP, for instance, and all of the applications were from 2003 or prior to that. I took the view that the services we were providing were unfit for purpose. The idea is to provide a different capability that fully exploits the power of the cloud and mobility. We can now work on documents collaboratively and understand more about the ways we are working—we will be able to see how much time teams are spending in meetings, on email and on the phone.

The MoD’s importance to Microsoft’s credentials here can be seen in the involvement of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in the negotiations around the security aspects, with Jones uncomfortable about classified data being stored outside of the UK.

In a research note to clients, Dan Jones, senior analyst at public sector analyst house Kable, reckons this is a win/win for Microsoft:

Microsoft has a perfect exemplar to demonstrate the benefits of 365, particularly in the public sector. In return, the MoD has been able to push Microsoft at the highest levels to deliver. For example, providing asynchronous cloud for service delivery on submarines.

“It also means that MoD has the highest support at executive level to push to get things done. It can say that, 'This has Satya’s full support.' That’s good leverage to get things done if there are any rollout problems.

Mental health

South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, the country’s largest mental health trust, was cited as the flagship health service customer, saying it “trusts” Microsoft to support communication across its organisation, such as – for example, with staff and services working in the community, including home visits, which require health specialists to work remotely. Stephen Docherty, Chief Information Officer at the Trust, said:

Everything we do is to improve the lives of the people and communities we serve. Having the option to store data locally will allow us to take advantage of new opportunities to utilise the Microsoft UK Azure Platform and it is reassuring to know that our Trust’s core data, that we create and manage, stays in the UK. For us, the Microsoft’s UK cloud region means that demonstrating regulatory and legal compliance is simpler. The bottom line is we trust Microsoft.

So that’s all good. The opening of the UK centers also won the enthusiastic approval of Liam Maxwell, former Chief Technology Officer to the UK government and scourge of the “oligopoly” of large suppliers. Now National Technology Advisor, he tweeted his support for the news:

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Not everyone’s going to be entirely comfortable with Microsoft staking a claim to be the first global provider to deliver “complete cloud” from UK centers. For a start, given that CRM Online isn’t available yet, it’s a moot point what’s meant by ‘complete’ here?

Leaving that to one side, do the likes of Microsoft's 'friend with benefits' Salesforce, which has a UK data center and pitches at the public sector, or Oracle, which does the same, not count as global providers? Neither commented yesterday, but this tweet from IBM says a lot if you read between the lines:

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My take

I’m struggling with the ‘first’ claim. And it’s important to note that as well as US-headquartered alternatives, such as Oracle and Salesforce, there are home-grown companies like UKCloud - formerly Skyscape - that have been servicing the UK public sector securely for years.

Still, anything that progresses the cause and adoption of cloud computing across government is welcome and should be applauded. Microsoft’s new UK data centers take away one more excuse for luddite CIOs and Sir Humphrey in what Maxwell terms 'The Department of No' not to make the move to the future.