Clouds over Britain

Whatever happened to the G-Cloud? The first real mention of the term came last year in the Digital Britain report, but passed essentially unnoticed in the mainstream media as tabloid indignation was focused on the so-called 'broadband tax'.

Whatever happened to the G-Cloud? The first real mention of the term came last year in the Digital Britain report, but passed essentially unnoticed in the mainstream media as tabloid indignation was focused on the so-called 'broadband tax'.

At the time the idea of the G-Cloud was very 'New Labour' in its approach: large, ambitious, centralised, all-embracing etc etc. But  as research firm Ovum noted: “Going by past performance, large-scale government IT projects often end up hitting technical and implementation issues, being delayed and over budget.”

The original ideas did contain some important – and now increasingly – pertinent terminology, principally around the idea of the Cloud being a more cost effective ICT delivery model.  UK government CIO John Suffolk has noted: “You wouldn't expect people to generate their own electricity. Computing is becoming a utility. Computing should be a commodity for as many in the public sector as possible. It's about efficiency, effectiveness, speed and driving the cost out of IT.

He added: “Cash is going to be king. It cannot be sustainable that we have hundreds and hundreds of data centres and tens of hundreds of networks. Do we need to own all this? We have hundred of systems doing the same thing. That's not a sustainable model over the next ten years.  Costs have to come down. Everyone from all parties are saying that cost must come down.”

That was then, before the advent of the age of austerity under the Coalition Government. While the exact details of the cuts are still being rolled out, it's clear that the old way of delivering ICT in the public sector has gone forever. There's a £100 million cap on any new programmes, while existing projects are all under forensic scrutiny. A new paradigm is needed.

And yet the G-Cloud seems to have vanished from the discussion. It pops up now and again as a concept, but that concept itself has morphed subtly. We no longer talk about the G-Cloud, but G-Clouds, lots of smaller, federated Clouds that float over specific parts of the public sector. As Suffolk him said: “Do I think that the government will have one Cloud? No. You have to question the health model, the policing model, local authority model and so on.”

There are lessons to be learned from over the pond where the Obama administration is a far more 'out and proud' advocate of Cloud Computing than any UK government to date. Federal CIO Vivek Kundra has been crystal clear about the need for change as he puts 26 major ICT programmes under review: “This isn't about killing projects. It's about making them work better and faster. It's about getting more from taxpayer dollars.”

But Kundra's enthusiasm for Cloud as an alternative approach has met with opposition from some at the ground level: the federal CIOs who'll have to put the change into practice. A report from the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) based on the views of CIOs at 22 major US agencies, listed several security concerns: vendors using ineffective security practices, agencies not able to examine the security controls of vendors, cyber criminals targeting data-rich Clouds, and agencies losing access to their data if the relationship with a vendor ends.

The report noted: “The adoption of Cloud Computing has the potential to provide benefits to federal agencies; however, it can also create numerous information security risks. Federal agencies have taken steps to address Cloud Computing security, but many have not developed corresponding guidance...Until federal guidance and processes that specifically address information security for Cloud Computing are developed, agencies may be hesitant to implement Cloud Computing, and those programs that have been implemented may not have effective information security controls in place.”

It's nothing we haven't heard before in the private sector, of course. Among private sector firms, CIOs can be broadly grouped into 3 Cloud camps: the enthusiasts charging ahead, the agnostics who can see the theoretical benefits but remain to be entirely convinced,  and the 'over my dead body' brigade. This last contingent are undoubtedly a dying breed, but will act as an inhibitor to Cloud adoption in many organisations for many years to come.

It's reasonable to assume that as the G-Cloud(s) proposition gets more meat on its bones that we'll see a similar reaction across the UK public sector.  In its IT Trends report earlier this year, local government ICT association Socitm noted: “'We have misgivings about this about this initiative.”

Whether we see more robust objections coming through as the G-Clouds are rolled out remains to be seen. Clearly genuine concerns must be taken into account and given due consideration, but it's to be sincerely hoped that the public sector chooses to embrace the opportunities and potential of Cloud Computing to bring about a paradigm shift in ICT delivery models.

Suffolk has already said that different parts of the public sector will move at different speeds to the Cloud. But he echoes Kundra in terms of the overall aim: “This isn't just an overhead cost reduction exercise for IT. This is about saying that IT is an enabler of efficiencies in other areas.”

The progress of Cloud Computing in the  UK public sector is the subject of a one day conference stream at the Business Cloud Summit 2010 on 30th November in London.

For further details and registration information, go to