Is Cloud Computing the Best Long-Term Solution for the Public Sector?

By Allan Watton on

Is Cloud Computing the Best Long-Term Solution for Local Authorities?Cloud computing is becoming more and more relevant to public sector organisations. After all, the much-publicised G-Cloud Plan calls for 50% of new government IT spending to move to cloud computing services by 2015.

However, adoption of CloudStore products has been far from overwhelming. For instance, in a survey carried out in May 2012only 31% of IT Staff said that they would probably or definitely use the CloudStore to procure cloud services.

With that in mind, the “Cloud Computing in the Public Sector” conference I attended in Edinburgh was a timely event. There is a clear breakdown between top level and front line thinking on the topic of cloud computing. Is cloud computing the cost-saving solution that the government believes it is, or are cultural obstacles and procurement complications too great to overcome?

What is Cloud Computing?

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) defines cloud computing as follows:

…a model for enabling ubiquitous, convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction.

Cloud computing can be broken down into three distinct sections:

  1. Software as a Service (SaaS) — services such as Google, Gmail, and Salesforce.
  2. Platform as a Service (PaaS) — development tools for eCommerce, CRM, and so on (Google Apps being one example).
  3. Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) — servers, storage, comms services, etc.

The potential benefits of cloud computing are manifold:

  1. It can be highly cost-effective
  2. It is easy to scale
  3. You only pay for what you use
  4. It offers global accessibility and good business continuity/disaster recovery protection

With the above in mind, why is that local authorities aren’t clambering over themselves to implement cloud computing? The conference I attended last week revealed some interesting insights.

The Main Issues with the Cloud

The speakers in Edinburgh appeared to be in agreement regarding the main issues relating to cloud computing, which were summed up well by Philipp Huber, a senior cloud computing consultant with Exception Ltd:

  1. Data location
  2. Regulatory issues
  3. Data security
  4. Data integrity
  5. Data ownership
  6. Business continuity
  7. Lack of governance
  8. Level of support
  9. Responsibility gaps
  10. Fragmented usability
  11. Software licensing
  12. Vendor lock-in
  13. Hidden costs
  14. Runaway costs

As you can see, there is a lot to contend with. However, when asked at the panel session on the main issue that early adopters would mark out, the unanimous answer was contracts.

Unfortunately, advice pertaining to the unique challenges presented by cloud computing contracts did not go beyond “check the clauses”. I intend to address this issue in far more detail in my talk at the IT Directors’ Forum next week.

Are Public Sector Organisations Actually Using the Cloud?

What I found quite curious about the conference was that none of the speakers actually had practical examples of the adoption of what I would consider “true” cloud computing.

The first speaker was Tonino Ciuffini, Head of Information Assets for Warwickshire County Council. Although the council has implemented a cloud-based email system, Ciuffini was quick to point out that no personal data had been put on the cloud. On the contrary — he wouldn’t want to put personal information in the cloud. Hardly a glowing endorsement.

Another speaker was Peter Clark, the Chief Technology Officer of the Isle of Man Government. They have consolidated 22 systems down to 1, which certainly seems like a great success story. But their system is a “personal cloud” — is this what we are supposed to consider cloud computing? What sets it apart from the centralised computer networks that we have been operating for decades? Conversations at lunch were leaning towards the possibility of the cloud being the Emperor’s New Clothes — does it actually exist?

Of course, we are operating on the cutting edge, and my views on cloud computing are by no means perfectly formed. But one thing is for certain — cloud computing has not been accepted with open arms by public sector organisations yet. Whether that is an issue with the concept, or culture (or both), remains to be seen.

Creative Commons image courtesy of kevin dooley