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Characteristics of Moving to the Cloud

With local authorities moving increasingly towards digital delivery of public services, there has never been a more important time for the sector to exploit cloud computing as an innovative, efficient,  secure, and cost-effective route to long-term sustainability for Local Authority ICT infrastructure, as well as protecting citizen data. For data processing, where one day we may be analysing megabytes of data and the next terrabytes, cloud computing can offer a flexible and cost effective solution.

When we refer to ‘the cloud’, we are referring to IT resources which are delivered over the internet. These resources include software, services and even servers. A more traditional approach to IT is on-site infrastructure where organisations own and maintain their own physical infrastructure and software. With the cloud, IT resources are hosted by a cloud provider and customers purchase the use of these resources and access them via the internet.

Cloud type comparison

Within cloud services, a key difference is between private and public cloud. They both share the advantage of reducing the overhead in maintaining on-site infrastructure. However, with public cloud, the IT resources are available to many customers, whereas with private cloud these are reserved for a single customer. 

Public cloud systems are the most common type of cloud computing deployment. In public cloud, resources such as servers and storage are available to be leased by many customers, not just your own organisation.  The biggest providers are Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud.  All hardware, software and other supporting infrastructure are owned and managed by the cloud service provider.

With private cloud these computing resources are reserved exclusively for use by one organisation. The private cloud can be physically located at an organisation’s on-site data centre or it can be located with a third-party private cloud provider.

The advantage of migrating to a public cloud system is the relatively low cost of doing so, as the organisation only needs to pay for the service it uses.  The hardware, storage and network devices are shared with other organisations, delivering long-term savings. Futhermore, additional resources can be allocated to a system within seconds allowing a flexible server solution that can be elastic to demand. Private cloud on the other hand is more expensive and slightly less flexible as it requires the sole use of resources by the customer.  

Public cloud is also highly reliable. As the big public cloud providers span many physical data centres, availability and resilience can be stronger than you would get from a single site on-premises set up. It also provides benefits by offering IT resources as services abstracted from the underlying infrastructure. For example, rather than purchasing use of a virtual server with which to host a database or web application, you can instead purchase the use of a database ‘as a service’. This means the customer does not have to worry about maintaining the server, updating the operating system and so on.

Alternatively, there is a third option: hybrid cloud platform
s. This pathway gives organisations some advantages over a fully on-prem solution, such as greater flexibility, more deployment options, greater control and getting more value from their existing infrastructure. Organisations gain the flexibility and innovation that the public cloud provides by running workloads in the cloud while keeping highly sensitive data in their own data centre. Organisations will only pay for the resources they temporarily use instead of having to purchase, program and maintain additional resources and equipment which can result in much less long-term value for money. The downside of the hybrid model is that you may lose out on some of the potential cost savings such as the need to maintain and physically secure servers on-prem and the need to continue to employ a specialist workforce.

While there are many benefits to cloud, moving some local authority services to the cloud can be difficult. Given the wide array of services that local authorities provide to their constituents, authorities use many specialist applications provided by an array of different vendors. These are often developed on or are dependent on older technologies and use proprietary interfaces which are difficult to implement securely in cloud platform services (Platform as a Service) and cloud application services (Software as a Service) are unlikely to be available. Consequently, this option is limited as it leaves the Council responsible for managing the design, security, configuration and migration, plus the interfaces with other systems e.g. asset management system.

Scottish Government position on Cloud

Given the growing importance of cloud within the IT sector, the Scottish Government recently launched a Cloud First programme to help support and encourage public bodies to adopt cloud services. The policy is to encourage cloud as the default model for user-focussed digital services. Benefits that the programme mention include: strengthened cyber security, more flexibility and reduced delivery time, more resilience, and more cost effectiveness. 

The programme aims to create a knowledge base and facilitate information sharing between organisations specifically to support public sector moving to cloud services in the future.

Is public cloud secure?

Old arguments against public cloud systems due the security concerns are simply not true. The old argument goes that having the infrastructure owned by a third party reduces the customer organisations control of security measures, leaving it more open to security vulnerabilities. However, if properly architected, this means you have some of the best security measures being implemented by the cloud providers.

In reality, public cloud can greatly improve security such as through the ease of applying security patches, more secure infrastructure design and more advanced security tools. Additionally, widely used SAAS services such as O365 are backed up by teams of security professionals because the providers of those services benefit from economies of scale. No individual organisation the size of a Local Authority could hope to employ as many specialist security practitioners as Microsoft.

A step forward

A key example of a local authority embracing the Cloud is Dundee City Council, who, instead of continuing with ageing on-site ICT infrastructure, migrated 95% of its data to a private cloud system  – saving £1 million in the process. The Council moved its systems to local managed services provider Brightsolid’s data centre during the summer after senior management realised their own data centres needed significant upgrades to keep running. An early cost analysis showed that continuing with on-premises data centres would require an investment of up to £1m, so they approached

Brightsolid to explore a cheaper alternative option. The result was an agreement to move the majority of the Council’s ICT to Brightsolid’s Tier III designed data centre in Dundee. The project forms the Council’s first step towards its long-term goal of relying largely on the public cloud. Read more here.

Aberdeen City Council also became the first local authority in Scotland to utilise the Microsoft Cloud Navigator Plan to progress their digital transformation in 2019. 

Their aim was to fundamentally change the way it delivers services and improving customer service and staff efficiency by using artificial intelligence and cloud technologies on Azure. Switching to Microsoft Azure aimed to save the council a substantial amount of money by moving data from their existing on-premise storage to the cloud. Other intended benefits also included improved data security, while also having information made more accessible to employees, allowing them to operate more efficiently. 

Artificial Intelligence (AI) powered programs will also help the council engage better with customers, freeing up staff to spend time on more critical issues that affect the community. 

All over Scotland, local authorities and public bodies are looking to take advantage of the benefits cloud have to offer when the time comes to upgrade digital services.  Clearly, should the specific digital service be appropriate, there is lots to be gained by including the Cloud their IT arsenal, from cost reduction, to increased security and resilience, to more flexibility.  Exciting times ahead for Scotland’s digital services. Read more here

Blog written by:

- Digital Office for Scottish Local Government 

- Improvement Service