Beyond the data center: transitioning government to the cloud

This week UK Ministry of Justice official Martin Bellamy addressed concerns that the UK government has become less enthusiastic about a government cloud, saying, “We are expecting to be able to demonstrate that moving to a cloud model is going to allow us to save substantial amounts of money.”

Government officials in the UK and the U.S. talk enthusiastically about the money to be saved moving to the cloud, and the promise of agility offers great benefits in transforming processes. However, government moves slowly, and government IT projects do not have a good record of delivery on time and within budget. Can government really gain the same benefits as consumers and the commercial sector, or will specification creep, vested interests and perceived security requirements conspire to deliver a government cloud that more closely resembles the existing systems it is meant to replace than the commercial cloud solutions it was meant to emulate?

In the U.S., initiatives such as “cloud-first” policy are increasingly significant, although the recent resignation of CIO Vivek Kundra has been a distraction. Federal agencies are trying to save money, closing 800 data centers by 2015 and actively identifying processes and applications that can move to the cloud. New services such as will ease the transition, offering commercial applications suitable for government use. Commercial providers, too, are pursuing this $80 billion opportunity. Amazon launched AWS GovCloud in August to address federal government access restrictions, and this week it announced accreditation under the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA).

Back in the UK, there is enthusiasm for a similar model of consolidating infrastructure, harmonizing applications and driving cost savings throughout the machinery of government.

The challenge will be managing short-term costs associated with mothballing data centers and properly equipping the remainder to take on additional workloads. While data center consolidation is meant to save money, there will be a need to spend in the next few years in order to realize those savings over the long term. In the past the UK has ring-fenced funds to support short-term spending, and something similar will probably be required as part of the forthcoming G-Cloud delivery strategy.

Potential cost savings attract headlines, but the larger opportunity is agility. Bellamy recognizes this, with Computing quoting him: “Government also wants flexibility and freedom to change . . . In the future we want the marketplace to be more dynamic, where we can buy up services with shorter duration commitments and if a better service comes along, we are able to switch to it.”

There are already examples in which government departments embrace a cloud-based approach. Enterprise cloud collaboration provider Huddle attracted headlines over the summer when it secured a contract with FCO Services in the UK. Huddle’s SaaS collaboration system is now certified to support government officials’ collaborating in the cloud on sensitive information, and the partnership between Huddle and FCO Services represents a model for deployment that should prove replicable. Kable analyst Chris Pennell was quoted by ZDNet, noting that “the ability to offer [secure] services to the public sector is a big step in the ability of [government] to use cloud-based services.”

The Huddle example demonstrates a willingness on the part of government to adopt existing commercial software solutions and put them to work, rather than repeating previous mistakes and procuring essentially bespoke and expensive software solutions from companies like Accenture.

It remains to be seen whether the same lightweight approach will continue to be repeated, but publication of the UK’s delivery strategy next month will certainly provide a far clearer indication of the direction in which one government intends to move.

Question of the week

Do you think governments will be able to effectively use the cloud?