https://governmenttechnology.blog.gov.uk/2016/07/22/why-we-use-the-cloud-supporting-services/

Why we use the cloud: supporting services

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When you’re updating or procuring IT solutions it’s worth evaluating cloud services first. If you're in government, the Technology Code of Practice is clear that this is a necessity.  In this blog post I'm going to list of benefits for tech and support, in part two I'm going to outline the investment and security benefits.

Common Technology Services (CTS) is the part of GDS that is here to help make IT services better for government workers.  As part of GDS we work within the framework of the Technology Code of Practice, which is being updated now.

A mandatory part of the Code is the requirement to objectively evaluate potential public cloud solutions first, before considering other options when updating or procuring IT solutions. This is the cloud first policy.

I help with IT solution evaluations and have created a short list of cloud solution benefits to share. I’ve used this with the Northern Ireland Office, (NIO) where I am working on an upgrade to transform the NIO’s IT from a traditional to a cloud first solution.

This list of benefits can hopefully help other evaluations of cloud services.

Better technology

When cloud Software as a Service (SaaS) first appeared the early solutions were often low on features, but cheap, and often provided by new entrants or niche players. This is no longer the case. Major IT suppliers are becoming increasingly cloud first or cloud only.

The best technology solutions for many problems are available online, as a service.  It is hard for on-premises network security platforms to match the features of the best online tools.  Similarly, for a best-in-class email filtering solution, SaaS is the way to get it. It is not possible, or at least not cost effective, to provide unlimited data storage to all civil servants unless cloud services are used.  

For effective collaboration, cloud solutions make data easier to share and work on documents than any onsite alternatives.  Across a wide range of services and systems from security to productivity, it is often the case that the best solution is only available in the cloud.

Latest technology

On-premises commercial or self-developed IT solutions require budget, effort and planning for upgrades. It is very hard for any organisation to keep up with the constant demand for upgrades and security patches. Often in government we see technology that is badly out of date because such updates are expensive or difficult.

Public cloud services are usually delivered with a constant stream of upgrades, fixes and improvements. This is included in the cost. Departments do not need to upgrade server operating systems, purchase hardware, hire consultants, plan roll-backs or migrate data to get the benefits of the latest technology. Continuous improvement is delivered without effort.

Easier to support and use

Non-cloud solutions often depend on client software installed on the user’s computer.  This client software has to be installed and managed along with all other applications installed locally.

Often very specific dependencies on operating system versions and patch levels need to be met for the client software to be installed and work properly.  Upgrades need to be tested, and sometimes one old application can slow down adoption of new operating systems and more modern applications.

Cloud services are designed to be consumed over the internet.  To stay in business the service owners need to stay up to date with the browser, operating system and device choices of their customers.

As a result, the usual means of service access is with a modern web browser. For a government department running an estate of perhaps thousands of devices, like laptops, anything that reduces the amount of software on those devices is welcome.

Today, it is possible for civil servants to work in many roles using a laptop installed with security and management software, and access to all applications and data done via a web browser. This in turn enables an easy route to cross-platform support, so government users can choose Windows, macOS and Linux, and get the same experience on a device and operating system that suits them.

In addition to a browser, cloud services may also offer other means to use services and consume data. Apps for tablets and phones are sometimes available, and programmer-friendly data and automation interfaces called Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) are sometimes available as well. All these options make for user-friendly consumption of cloud services.

Reduced complexity

The way in which on-premise solutions are installed and configured can easily result in highly customised systems.  This adds complexity which makes support difficult and upgrades complex and risky.  Many systems store data internally in non-standard or hard to extract ways, which can create migration problems when the software reaches end-of-life.

Customisation is limited in SaaS systems, and the service provider manages any that is needed. This leaves the users to enjoy the benefits of creating a solution that is, to some extent, bespoke to their needs.  The best SaaS solutions provide APIs, or other means, to extract data in a standards based format. This makes possible archiving or migration to another system or service, with no complexity overhead to manage.

Elasticity

Even on-premises IT solutions with great scalability designed in have limits, and those limits are often within reach. Constant investment and effort is required to keep sufficient headroom in place.  To deliver true elasticity a large surplus of resources must constantly be maintained, which for most of the time lies unused.

Unlike on-premises solutions, even those offering some cloud features, public cloud services are genuinely elastic.  Even for the largest scale government departments the capacity required to deliver services is already there. It can be turned on when required, and turned off when unused.

There are no delays associated with waiting for servers or other capacity when scaling up. There is no long term investment and no cost caused by unused capacity.  The risk of not having enough is gone, and the complexity of capacity planning is greatly reduced.

Infrastructure services

Unfortunately not all software is readily available ‘as a service’.  Public cloud Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) can be a good alternative home to on-premises hosting of applications. Using IaaS to host software means some of the complexity of managing applications on-premises still remains, for instance planning upgrades and patches.

There are substantial benefits to IaaS though, as many other problems are greatly reduced when compared to conventional hosting. Network, storage and compute provisioning are typically exceedingly easy to consume and are available, on a secure, pay-as-you-use basis, at great scale.

Further considerations

In the second post in this series I‘ll look at cloud financial and security benefits, and which cloud services are adequate for government.

CTS is interested to hear your experiences with cloud services in government, email us, or use the comments feature below.