Innovation and changeCloud ComputingWhy cloud is more difficult for local authorities

Why cloud is more difficult for local authorities

Richard Blanford, CEO of Fordway, discusses why cloud adoption is a tougher proposition for local authorities than other public sector organisations – and what can be done to ease the migration.

It’s now five years since the government implemented its ‘Cloud First’ policy for all technology decisions i.e. that when procuring new or existing services, public sector organisations should consider and fully evaluate potential cloud solutions first before considering any other option. Cloud First is mandatory for central government and strongly recommended to the wider public sector.

However, local authorities have been much slower to adopt cloud than central government departments. This might initially seem counterintuitive. Cloud should, in theory, help them to address the challenges of shrinking budgets by eliminating or substantially reducing in-house infrastructure. It would also help them to meet rising expectations for digital engagement, and in many cases offers added security and functionality, enabling them to benefit from the economies of scale of cloud providers.

In my view, one of the main reasons behind this slow adoption is because cloud is significantly more difficult for local authorities to implement than central Government. It’s also why cloud adoption in the NHS is seen as being slow. This is not due to any lack of ability or initiative on their part, or because they do not understand the benefits cloud offers, but simply because of the wide range of functions that local authorities handle.

Before looking at why the reasons behind this and how it might be addressed, it’s useful to consider the current levels of cloud adoption in local authorities.

The level of cloud adoption

Two recent reports show the progress local authorities are making in cloud adoption. Both are based on responses to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.

The Local Government Cloud Adoption 2018 report from Eduserv and Socitm found that 62 per cent of councils now use some form of cloud to deliver organisational IT services. 81 per cent of the 373 councils who responded were maintaining on-premise infrastructure, and 64 per cent said that they were running a hybrid IT model. However, things are moving slowly: they found that rate of adoption had only increased by 10 per cent in the last two years, and only 40 per cent of respondents had a cloud policy or strategy in place.

Similar research from Citrix obtained responses from 40 councils. Of these eight per cent said that they now access and manage all data in public clouds. 85 per cent of respondents had less than half of their applications and data in the cloud, with 77 per cent storing less than a quarter in a cloud environment.

Both reports concluded that legacy IT systems are the main reason that that local authorities ‘struggle to fully embrace the cloud’, to quote Citrix. In my view, that’s a somewhat simplistic conclusion.

Many systems to migrate and integrate

The biggest challenge local authorities face is the wide range of services they have to provide their citizens. In order to meet their responsibilities a unitary authority may need 30 to 50 key applications. Each one will have to be migrated independently to cloud. The process and rigour to migrate a small system to cloud takes almost as long as migrating a large system, whether the system is three or 300 servers – and with less realisable benefit from doing so. In contrast, central government departments typically have one main function and hence have only a few major systems to move to cloud, plus the scale and resources to enable the move.

The second challenge to consider is integration. Generally, the specialist applications used by local authorities are each provided by different vendors. These are often developed on or are dependent on older technologies, and use proprietary interfaces which are not supported by PaaS; SaaS versions are unlikely to be available, meaning IaaS is the only option. All cloud IaaS provides is the base server instance, leaving responsibility for managing the design, configuration and migration, plus the interfaces with other systems e.g. asset management system, GIS etc., with the council.

This leaves councils with three options: make it the vendor’s problem, which generally means that they host it for you, for which they will usually charge a significant fee; manage the process yourself; or keep it on-premise until it is time for a replacement. The problem becomes worse if the authority has customised the application. Moving to SaaS would mean that any development carried out to enable integration with other systems will probably need to be configured into the SaaS offering, if possible, or be lost, potentially impacting the council’s business processes.

The NHS faces the same challenges. We are currently working with an NHS organisation and designed a cloud solution based on the key systems in their brief. However, once we began the implementation, we continued to discover new systems that the service needed to integrate with which they had not told us about. These might only perform a single function, or be used infrequently by a small number of users, and so had been overlooked when drawing up the big picture of the organisation’s IT infrastructure. In some cases, their IT team didn’t even know about them. However, they were fundamental to its successful operation, and so a suitable solution had to be developed before the migration could be completed.

Standardise, simplify and archive

Local authorities who wish to move to cloud therefore have two options. They could ‘lift and shift’ to public cloud IaaS, which has the benefit of eliminating in-house infrastructure, but will almost certainly be more difficult, complicated and cost more than expected. This could be compared to the move to outsourcing in the past, where organisations simply handed their existing infrastructure to a third party to run it for them, often disparagingly referred to as ‘your mess for less’.

A better alternative is to first review the current application portfolio and work out a plan to standardise on fewer applications, plus delete or archive as much data as possible. With complexity and volume reduced, cloud migration becomes more straightforward, and becomes an application update and replacement strategy. A good place to begin is a business and IT alignment review to define the service levels needed for the key operational processes that IT supports. Current processes may need to be adapted or modified to maximise the benefit of using cloud.

With this done, local authorities can develop a clear plan for cloud. By mapping applications for the next few years and asking vendors for their roadmaps, they can understand potential interactions and develop a phased migration plan for applications which it makes sense to move. It typically takes six months to a year to move an application, with all the associated disruption and potential pain, so they should not plan to move too many at once.

Some dependencies will remain

While cloud offers many benefits, it is not a panacea for all IT issues. It is a facilitator, not the answer, and those who criticise local authorities for being slower to adopt it than those in other sectors demonstrate a lack of understanding of how they work. As the proverb goes, “don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes”.

It is also important to understand that even the most careful planning cannot solve every issue. Some vendor dependencies will remain as they will simply require too much work to eliminate. We have experienced this with some of our customers – sometimes, after examining every option, a particular piece of equipment or software has to remain in place. When the choice is between paying say £10,000 annually to host an application as it is, or £100,000 to redesign it using an open API for cloud PaaS, the balance of benefit versus reward is clear.

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