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Shrinking the government's datacentre count

Government CIO John Suffolk talks about how the planned public-sector consolidation will be carried out, and what the benefits will be
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor on

Technology has changed, the economy has changed, and IT in government must also change, according to government chief information officer John Suffolk.

Suffolk heads up the government's recently announced programme to simplify and standardise the IT infrastructure across the different areas of the public sector. Within three years, the government aims to cut £3.2bn from its IT budget, by getting rid of duplication of technology, and sharing software and services.

Central to the strategy is the plan to reduce datacentre count: there are around 130 datacentres for central government, over 80 in policing, and a large number in local government. These will be cut to between nine and 12. To support this consolidation, the government is embracing cloud computing, including establishing its own G Cloud, and is setting up a centralised app store for agencies to get scalable access to software and services.

Suffolk talked to ZDNet UK about how the government plans to carry out its datacentre rationalisation, and how the app store will be a benefit for procurement.

What is the rationale behind consolidation?
There's an economic cost to running datacentres. HP helped us do an analysis of savings. If we rationalise the datacentres, they predicted a £900m saving over the first three years, and £300m thereafter. [In the current climate] the government is tightening its belt and cutting costs.

What is the timescale, and will the datacentres be private or public sector?
The datacentres are pretty well outsourced at the moment. Our plans surround the natural refresh of existing contracts. We will map the contracts and work out the renewals. It will be up to departments when they rationalise, but if they don't, they'll have to say why they are not rationalising.

How will you achieve the rationalisation?
They are pretty common around the world, a number of organisations have done massive reductions, so we won't be doing anything groundbreaking. This is not a new process, so there's lots of empirical evidence [to work from]. We've got to get it right. Having moved datacentres in a past life, you do go a little bit greyer around the hair.

Will consolidation bring environmental benefits?
We are planning to build datacentres with fresh-air cooling. One supplier believes they can build a zero-carbon datacentre. Absolutely, we will look at what is the best [technology] at that moment in time.

Does having fewer datacentres increase the likelihood of a successful attack being more devastating?
There are two schools of thought about that. One says that to cut the defence risk, you get rid of as many endpoints as you can. The US is dramatically reducing...

...its endpoint access, as less access means there is less to attack, and that's the approach we're taking. If we have a smaller number of datacentres, we can make them even more secure than they are today.

You have to ask the questions: Do you need so many datacentres? Can you protect them? In this context, less is more.

Why has the government decided on either nine or 12 datacentres?
We are learning from business continuity planning and critical national infrastructure organisations — they have clusters of datacentres. There is a lot of theory on the need for trios of datacentres, so if one goes down, you have two more to protect your data. That's why we're talking of nine or 12 — because they are made up of trios.

Do you expect attacks on government systems to increase, or will they remain at present levels?
At the present time, people are saying that cyber [attacks] will continue to increase as technology becomes more pervasive. From a UK perspective, we need to make sure we are fully protected from cyber [attacks]. Cyber will continue to grow as an issue. The government has recognised that, and responded by [measures such as] setting up the Cyber Security Operations Centre. You've got to take cybersecurity seriously, and we absolutely do.

What is the rationale behind the government app store?
In a procurement exercise, you have to spend money both on the buyer and on the supplier side — it all takes money and time. The government app store standardises the values of products, services and design, which cuts out time, and time is money. It's cheaper from both a supplier and procurer perspective.

Also, we are frequently criticised for only giving work to the same suppliers — which is not true, but I can understand the criticism. We want to drive innovation, and the app store will put [SMEs] on an equal footing to the big boys and girls.

Why have a standard set of specifications for government PCs?
I believe Gartner has put the total cost of PC ownership for large organisations at around $3,500 (£2,200) per user over four years. But how many people actually spend that?

I was quite surprised that 25 years after the invention of the PC, no-one could tell me the best engineered design for a desktop. We're working with the Identity and Passport Service and the Department for Work and Pensions to come up with some standard models at a defined price. It's really important, if you think of how big the public sector is.

There are around four million devices out there — if we can save £10 per device, per year, that's £40m.

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