UKCloud, the government dedicated hosting provider, is going after the defence community and government departments that require data hosted in the cloud that is classified above ‘official’ (otherwise considered secret or top secret data), with the launch of UKCloudX.
UKCloud is one of the government’s SME and G-Cloud success stories, initially launching an IaaS platform for general government requirements in 2011. It last year followed this with the launch of UKCloud Health, which targets health and care organisations, now already making up 23% of its business.
With the launch of UKCloudX it is hoping to specialise further and provide what it is branding as the UK’s first “high assurance cloud platform”, along with operations and support for sensitive government data, which it is hoping will attract the likes of the Ministry of Defence and other agencies to the cloud.
It has invested £25 million in the platform and CEO Simon Hansford said that UKCloud will be making at least 50 new hires this year, with “considerably more” to follow next year. The company also said that the launch will support an ecosystem of local technology firms that focus on defence and security.
The company held an official launch event at its headquarters in Farnborough yesterday, attended by diginomica/government, where we got some insight into the ambitions behind UKCloudX.
Opening the launch, CEO Simon Hansford said:
Today we are here to launch UKCloudX - an open, secure, collaborative, UK sovereign cloud platform, which is designed to store and process data classified as ‘above official’.
We believe that national security is a collective responsibility. When Theresa May spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, she stressed the need for technology companies to do more in stepping up for their own responsibilities in dealing with harmful and illegal online activity. We believe that UKCloudX demonstrates UKCloud’s own commitment, and that of our partners, to doing the right thing. Stepping up to our responsibilities and in doing so, helping make our nation a safer place.”
Hansford said that UKCloudX will provide more “powerful digital resource”, to help those working to defend the UK, for those fighting terror and crime, by enabling them to “share insights, and to evolve our collective capability to address the threats that we have”.
He added that the platform has been driven by an “exceptional level of interest”.
The MoD will need to depend on innovation to maintain the military advantage. UKCloudX is exactly that. It’s an innovation that will help to encourage further innovation through capability. That will allow emerging technologies to be exploited in the national interest.
Data is key to our national security and has got to be protected. Our ‘above official’ data has to be kept fortified. And the use of that at times is cumbersome and restrained - UKCloudX will equip our national security communities with a leading edge digital capability that’s vital in a world with so many threats.
It will also allow the use of AI, it will enable us to filter important information faster, and quicker. UKCloudX will enable the UK to harness the power of ‘secret data’ in a way that simply hasn’t been possible today, at scale.
Filling a gap
UKCloud CTO, Leighton James, was on hand to answer some questions around the specifics of UKCloudX, where he described the buyer market of security and defence as still behind the times in terms of digital capability.
James said that he and UKCloud have been working closely with the classification agencies to create a platform that offers alternative ways of working for these buyers, but still plays by the rules. He said:
“We are trying to disrupt and bring a new way of working in a sphere that is very traditional, very siloed and has very clear rules about how one operates infrastructure at this level. So, we have to play by the rules, but frankly those rules were written in an era where some of the technologies and some of the approaches have moved on.
“Our approach has been engaging with the customer community, and taking guidance from them as to how much is too far? We’ve been trying to push the boundaries. It’s very much play by the rules, but help the customer challenge those rules where appropriate.”
Equally, James sees this market as ripe for the taking and ripe for disruption, as defence and security buyers are still by and large operating on ageing legacy systems that don’t offer modern ways of working. He puts this down to there not having been a sensible alternative that meets the security requirements. James said:
What we are seeing is that this community is in a similar level of maturity that the central government community was in about six or seven years ago, when we started the core UKCloud business. So the architectures of the applications are still very traditional. The opportunities that we have in this space immediately are all predominantly traditional applications that would be hosted in a traditional data centre, but there is some commercial flexibility of running that on a UKCloudX platform.
We are then seeing customers starting to get inspired by - if cloud existed at this level, what else can I do? That’s the art of the possible and that’s a question they hadn’t thought of before. What can I do with that more flexible hosting platform? That’s our strategy, to develop the platform to meet that need.
I also asked James what made him think that UKCloud could win out against the US cloud giants, which also offer government-specific options for buyers. For example, AWS has had success in the US in terms of hosting for defence agencies. However, James isn’t worried, as he doesn’t see the likes of AWS offering the capability that UKCloud, as a UK player, is able to offer. He said:
What AWS, Azure and Google have done in the US is they’ve created a gov cloud. That cloud is being used by the intelligence community and the Department of Defence. If you look at how they did that, they did not just build a data centre, but they built entire operation centres around their government customers. So the people that operate that infrastructure are US government-cleared people. US nationals.
To do that in the UK - they’ve already got UK data centres - so the real investment for them is, can they create UK operation centres and man those centres with UK security-cleared people? That’s the investment that frankly they can’t see a return on. But for UKCloud, this is our market.
We’re quite happy to make that investment because we can see the return, we don’t have the global perspective that they have. In many ways we are emulating what they’ve done in the US, but they’re not going to do it in the UK, so we are filling that gap.
Leo Docherty, MP for Aldershot, was on hand at the event to provide his political support for UKCloudX. Docherty is a member of the parliamentary Defence Select Committee and told those attending that UKCloud is providing the capability that is needed for the defence sector. He said:
This is a very significant milestone. My heartiest congratulations for the launch. I am hugely excited about the capability you’re going to be able to provide. As a member of the Defence Select Committee, I regard what you’re doing here as something that is critical to our national security.
Because of our capability review, which has now morphed into the Modernising Defence Programme, there is a recognition that the way we do our defence will have to be agile. We don’t fight our wars now just on the land, on the sea and in the air, we fight them also in the cyber battlefield and in space.
To meet that challenge we have to have the information edge. The challenge of government to be able to handle huge amounts of data, to be able to fuse that across government agencies and departments, in a secure and classified way, that is the security challenge of this age.
We are going to turn all of that data into actionable intelligence, so we can find where the bad guys are. That is the battle winning capability that we need.