Is cloud computing the right approach for the public sector?

The appeal of quick wins needs balance...

The appeal of quick wins needs balance...

The cloud holds an irresistible pull on government but agreeing on the right commercial model and keeping in line with procurement law will take some thought, says Mark O'Conor.

You can't fail to have noticed the emergence of cloud as the technology buzzword of the day. It has been hailed as the big new idea and praised for its potential to transform business. But how could cloud computing work as a solution for government as it continues its drive to cut costs?

At a time of budget constraint, technology that allows more to be done with less is welcome and analysed in great detail. But naturally, where there are benefits, there are also risks.

Arguments supporting a move to the cloud computing model include:

Pro-cloud argument one: Financial factors
The government is under huge budgetary pressure following the banking crisis. There is not only an increased need to cut costs, but also an emphasis on value for money for the taxpayer.

cloud computing's ability to save money chimes with the government's cost-cutting drive

Cloud computing's ability to save money chimes with the government's cost-cutting drive
(Photo credit: pltauk via Flickr under the following Creative Commons licence

Pro-cloud argument two: Rationalisation
There is significant scope for rationalisation of government databases and the potential to make great financial and energy efficiencies by using virtualisation.

Pro-cloud argument three: Green issues
The significance of the green agenda in politics is set out in the Climate Change Act and Carbon Reduction Commitment. However, the agenda is also carried through in the green provisions in the Office of Government Commerce model agreements for IT services. Since August, when version 2.3 of the model agreements were released:

  • Contractors must identify "changes to the ICT environment, business processes and ways of working that would enable reductions in the total energy consumed annually in the delivery of services" as part of the Service Improvements provisions.

  • The Continuous Improvement provisions include the requirement: "reducing energy consumption".

Copenhagen helped create more political pressure for green issues: for example, recently the International Telecommunications Union, which is part of the UN, said IT should be...

... seen as reducing emissions in any successor to the Kyoto Protocol. It calls for specific mention of the role of IT to be included within future agreements.

Pro-cloud argument four: Flexibility
Cloud computing can facilitate flexible working, something which the government is keen to promote.

So what are the arguments against computing? Here are the principal objections:

Anti-cloud argument one: Unproven technology
Cloud computing is a relatively new technology and so far not really tried and tested. Suppliers claim it is well established now, but many others disagree. Given the role of government departments and the sort of data they may be holding, a more cautious approach may be prudent.

Anti-cloud argument two: Data location
A related point: politically and, indeed, in practice, keeping government data and the security around it in the public sector should take priority over financial and environmental factors. The data is too sensitive - both in terms of data protection and in public perception - to be held by a third-party private sector supplier.

Might there be a halfway house? If so, one option is to create efficiencies of scale by holding data from numerous government databases or departments together in a private cloud.

This approach need not necessarily involve aggregating the data from different departments or government bodies. However, there may be political or regulatory reasons why this move is not desirable - for example, virtualisation allows data to be stored on the same server when the customers are unconnected.

An alternative, or additional, option is to consider using a third party for less sensitive or low-risk data while keeping the remainder in-government.

In this time of public sector moratorium, all attention is on the potential renegotiation of existing deals. In parallel, the technology agenda is being finalised, and quick wins are sought to establish the government cloud or clouds and to establish a public sector applications store.

When new procurements do occur, they will need to be quick, cheap, efficient, and harness cloud and open source techniques. They will also need to aggregate demand and seek commoditised systems where possible.

All that needs to be done now is to agree on the commercial model and to keep on the right side of procurement law. That will take some thought.

Mark O'Conor is a partner in the intellectual property and technology group at law firm DLA Piper, London. He is also a member of the Commercial Strategy Workstream for the Cabinet Office's G-Cloud Programme.

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