A virtual reality for the public sector?

Cloud computing is undoubtedly one of the most hyped and widely used buzzwords in IT. In truth, the lack of any clear definition of what cloud computing refers to has played a major factor in fuelling the hype but is also the cause of some confusion.
Is it simply Software as a Service? Is it just another way of referring to outsourced IT infrastructure? Is it just pay as you go compute capacity? Whatever it is, the expectations are huge; banking analysts say that cloud computing will be a $160 billion market within the next five years, and every major IT company is jumping on the bandwagon.

The next big thing
Behind this hype there is both a growing realisation and an acceptance that cloud computing, in one form or another, will represent the next big transformation in the IT industry as a whole. Organisations have recognised for some time now that their internal data centres are extremely inefficient, and have looked for more efficient use of their infrastructure, better control of their applications while having increased choice in the way they support their operations.
It is this inefficiency that has been one of the key drivers behind virtualisation, a technology that has been widely adopted by public sector organisations looking to curb server sprawl and rein in the mounting costs associated with their growing IT infrastructure. More recent advancements in virtualisation technology have given rise to the phrase Cloud-OS to describe the way IT departments are able to build internal cloud-like data centres, and many are touting virtualisation as the natural step in the path towards cloud computing.
The parallels between cloud computing and virtualisation are clear; for many, both technologies have obvious links to the days of mainframe computing. In fact, the lineage is so fundamental that industry observers are now referring to more advanced virtualisation platforms as being like ‘software mainframes’. The notion of cloud computing also has its roots in this era – the idea of vast clouds of compute capacity echoing the words of Thomas J. Watson, founder of IBM, who is supposed to have remarked that “there is a world market for about five computers”.

Cost savings?
While few industries have yet to fully embrace cloud computing wholesale, the public sector has perhaps been more open than other sectors to some of the underlying philosophies or concepts involved. Minimising costs has always been a priority for public sector CIOs, and one way these organisations have tried to avoid ongoing and upfront expenditure on IT is to outsource IT or engage with hosting or managed service providers. IT departments moving to this kind of model do not have to buy hardware and infrastructure, can keep ongoing maintenance costs to a minimum and are able to increase the amount of services they can deliver without necessarily taking on extra staff.
One of the barriers to cloud computing is cultural rather than technical; IT departments are often unwilling to move their applications and data outside their own datacenter for fear of losing control and compromising data-security. However, public sector organisations have to be more flexible in their approach to IT because of the budgetary restraints that shape their decision-making. Evidence of this willingness to look beyond the confines of the internal datacentre comes in the form of how widely public sector bodies have already explored the shared services model.

Sharing services
The first step to shared IT services is the identification of the business functions that have processes or applications common to several organisations. This identification is often the most straightforward part of the process – far more complex is actually creating a common platform which two or more IT departments can share.
Traditionally, the single biggest decision has been agreeing on the most effective architecture for delivering the shared service – in house, outsourced or split between organisations. This decision has often been forced on IT departments because of the fundamental inflexibility of physical approaches to computing – applications have been tied to individual physical machines that have in turn been linked by physical networks in physical data centres. Typically it has been due to technical and not political reasons that shared services have yet to really take off.

Choosing the best solution
Because of the way virtualisation has broken this tie between physical infrastructure and applications, it has given public sector organisations the ability to start exploring different approaches. IT departments have a great deal more flexibility around the architecture they choose – in house, outsourced or shared; instead of having to pursue one route they can instead choose a mixture that delivers the best levels of flexibility and cost-efficiency. Two IT departments moving to a shared service model using virtualisation may, for example, decide to split the service between their internal datacentres and then use a third-party provider to provide a DR site.
Taking this one step further, virtualisation presents a straightforward route into cloud computing, in fact, more straightforward than other more proprietary cloud platforms. Moving a particular service into the cloud has traditionally been a major undertaking that has dissuaded organisations from taking this step. Rewriting applications to work on a proprietary cloud platform has required significant effort and expense and has also created the problem of lock-in, where it becomes too difficult or disruptive for IT departments to change provider. This has seen proprietary cloud platforms jokingly referred to as being like Hotel California – i.e. ‘you can never leave’.

Key technology
This last point is perhaps where the case for virtualisation as the key underpinning technology to enable the cloud begins. Today, virtualisation is broadly used to operate internal IT infrastructure, as well as by service providers to deliver managed applications, web hosting and other IT services. The specific characteristics of virtual machines – encapsulation, isolation, hardware-independence – mean that they can run on any virtualised hardware platform in a very efficient and controlled manner. For IT departments this creates the unique opportunity to have complete transparency between internal infrastructure and external cloud infrastructure without any impact to data-security.
This is where the idea of internal, external and private clouds comes into play. ‘Internal cloud’ refers to virtualised data centres that share many of the characteristics of cloud computing; ‘external clouds’ are those cloud services delivered by third-party providers, or in the case of a shared services model, by another public sector organisation; finally, a ‘private cloud’ is a cloud computing environment that spans internal and external cloud infrastructure, presenting a seamless, secure and managed cloud. The private cloud is like a virtual private network – when IT departments implement a VPN, they retain control, but can extend their network using publicly available or external infrastructure.

Security policies
By using virtualisation, cloud IT users will be able to make use of the advanced security features being delivered around the core hypervisor. New technologies can enforce security policies at the application level, ensuring that specific users and sensitive data remain segmented. This is particularly crucial for public sector organisations handling sensitive information and is also particularly pertinent with the government’s Code of Communication (CoCo) deadline having just passed. The introduction of secure APIs is also enabling a rich ecosystem of third-party security solutions for virtualised environments, which will make it even easier for IT departments using virtualisation to become and remain compliant.
Also from a scalability perspective, virtualisation delivers significant benefits in terms of the ease and speed with which computing resources can be deployed and delivered. Virtual machines can be provisioned in a matter of minutes – far quicker than dedicated physical infrastructure can be procured and deployed. This kind of rapid scalability is why the terms “IT as a service” and “utility computing” are being used to describe where virtualisation is heading; in the same way customers flick a switch and get power, the idea is that IT departments will be able to simply tap into a pool of computer power on-demand.

Better services for citizens
For public sector organisations with external-facing applications, like web portals, the experience of end-users – in this case, members of the public – is crucial. With virtualisation’s high availability, fault tolerance and load balancing capabilities underpinning internal clouds, computing requirements are resourced and delivered to ensure optimum application availability.
The ‘green’ benefits of virtualisation have been widely touted and this represents yet another compelling reason for considering a virtualised approach to cloud computing. Public sector IT departments may have previously only paid lip-service to corporate social responsibility targets and carbon footprints, but the momentum behind green IT is genuine, and has seen the concept move up the agenda for CIOs. Indeed, a 2008 government whitepaper entitled ‘Greening Government ICT’ effectively mandates server virtualisation to help government organisations achieve carbon neutrality across their IT infrastructure. The latest improvements to virtualisation technology and server technology have pretty much doubled the server consolidation ratios that can be achieved, as well as delivering new intelligent power management features that can power down unused physical machines to increase power savings even further.
Many public sector organisations have found that by implementing virtualisation, they have already gone some way towards building a data centre that is resilient, flexible, service-oriented and ultimately more cloud-like. For these organisations the opportunity to extend their internal infrastructure with computing resources from the cloud may well be the next natural step. Virtualisation has fundamentally bridged the chasm between the internal and external cloud, and made what was considered a sea-change in philosophy into a natural evolutionary advance. Cloud computing is no longer a decade away, not some distant vision – it is a reality which many public sector IT departments should grasp with both hands.

Please register to comment on this article