Scottish Government digital chief on the public sector embracing cloud

Written by on 15 January 2016 in Feature

Scottish Government digital transformation manager Jim Gordon discusses efforts to cut the number of public sector data centres

“Cloud computing is not inherently more or less risky than traditional ICT,” says Jim Gordon, digital transformation manager within the Scottish Government. “But the relative risks are different.”

As the official in charge of data centre consolidation, it falls to Gordon to get that message across. A little over 18 months on from a national strategy for public sector data storage being published by the government, he clearly has a job on his hands.

The logic that led the deputy first minister, John Swinney, to lay out a data hosting and data centre strategy for the public sector nearly two years ago was straightforward. Money was being spent on half-empty data centres spread across the public sector when sharing facilities was a more sensible alternative. Use of cloud technology would create even more room and therefore a need for fewer data centres.

“Sounds simple and logical, right?” says Gordon. An attempt early last year to establish what the data centre landscape looked like across the public sector suggested otherwise.

“We weren’t surprised by the results saying there were none closed down,” he adds. “One of the reasons being that we haven’t moved as many services into the cloud as we could.

“While the cloud is an obvious place for a lot of services, the public sector still has a role to guard and protect sensitive and personal data that they have been entrusted to manage. While the cloud is continually evolving there is still uncertainty and challenges that organisations need to understand.”

That said, there has been progress, says Gordon. There are examples of organisations starting to use a hosting procurement framework that went live last year. Some have developed a cloud strategy including a roadmap as to how they will move to public cloud. Others have begun to enter into reciprocal agreements on sharing each other’s facilities for resiliency and disaster recovery following creation of a directory of public sector data centres that lets organisations know who has space to offer.

“The challenge now is to identify where all organisations are on this roadmap and understand how we can help those who are maybe not as far along it as we would have hoped,” he tells Connect.

“Continual information requests to organisations are time consuming so we are looking at what is necessary and how we can use the information to develop a national digital ecosystem which will be a combination of infrastructure, services and standards that are available across the public sector to reduce cost, ensure quality and ensure the integration of systems and processes that will help organisations in their future strategic decisions.”

One avenue officials are exploring is the creation of a ‘community cloud’ for the public sector that could serve to speed up the transition and “remove some of their concerns and perceived lack of control”. “It could potentially take a number of routes from who could build and run it i.e. private sector, public sector or jointly,” says Gordon. Implementation will ultimately depend upon buy-in from organisations, he adds.

There are, however, a number of stages likely to precede cloud adoption. Co-location, which sees organisations own their server equipment but rent space in a hosting centre owned by another, is one the government is keen to encourage. The Scottish Prison Service, for instance, is co-locating with the Scottish Government, with South Lanarkshire Council hosting their back up. Around 20 organisations are based in the government’s own data centre facility.

“Previously, a lack of active participation by organisations in responding to information requests has meant that the existing data centre environment across the Scottish public sector is unclear,” says Gordon.

“Limited transparency over what is being used and paid for means that standard benchmarking metrics for energy consumption, space, network and server utilisation are almost impossible to obtain. Responses to an initial request last year for information from organisations in these areas did not provide adequate detail to generate an accurate picture of the public sector hosting landscape.”

The result: a “more proactive approach” is now being taken, says Gordon. Officials are working with a group of organisations to figure out the total cost of ownership (TCO) behind different hosting arrangements and thereby piece together a picture of the wider public sector.

“We will also have a comprehensive overview of the public sector hosting landscape to inform our understanding of the requirements of a potential national solution to the sector’s data hosting requirements,” adds Gordon.

A standardised tool is being developed alongside Zero Waste Scotland to help organisations compare the cost and energy consumption associated with their existing arrangements with other alternatives.

“I hear it a lot that change is slow and the culture in organisations prevents innovative thinking,” says Gordon. “That may be true to an extent but if we want to create the right environment for change we need to engage with and inform people at all levels in the public sector of best practice in the rapidly changing digital world.” A number of programmes now exist that attempt to do so, Gordon points out, including the digital champions programme and SOCITM Top Talent.

“I think we can be quite hard on ourselves when it comes to comparing what we do in the public sector and what is done in the private sector,” adds Gordon. “For example, it’s easy for startups – and there is obviously more of them in the private than public sector – that don’t own their own data centre, they would generally go straight to the cloud. But the same can be said with the same conditions in the public sector - for example, the mygov.scot programme is fully cloud and Revenue Scotland uses a shared facility.

“Finance, quite rightly, is also scrutinised more and ICT failures in the past in the public sector perhaps means what some would see as revolutionary change needs to be more evolutionary and this perhaps is a consideration when looking at the pace of change.

“I am confident that we will create a model that will enable public sector organisations to move with more pace and certainty, particularly around security into a more consolidated environment that will support the Scottish Government’s ambition to be a world-class digital nation by 2020 and deliver digital public services shaped around people’s needs and easily-accessible by users.” 

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