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Crown Hosting "different way to procure similar services", analyst warns



A planned "Crown Hosting" service allowing government agencies to call datacentre services off a central cloud framework may not act as a bridge to public cloud hosting as the government intends, one analyst has warned.

Last month the Cabinet Office published a contract notice inviting suppliers to put themselves forward to offer datacentre services to the whole of government, called off by departments and agencies in framework agreements over an initial four-year period in a deal worth up to £700m.

The "Crown Hosting" service will be run by "DatacentreCo", a new firm majority-owned by the successful bidder, with the government retaining a shareholding of about 25%. The private partner will be expected to provide initial funding for the new company.

The system will initially be approved to handle information with UK Government security classification 'OFFICIAL' but there may be a future requirement for services handling information up to 'TOP SECRET', the contract notice says.

The project is intended as a bridge between legacy government systems hosting and a move towards hosting as many systems as possible in the public cloud. However Simon Haighton-Williams, chief executive of enterprise software consultancy Adaptavist which has worked across UK government, told this week it may not be effective in this role.

"The government has tried many types of procurement with varying levels of success... [and] this variant of setting up a joint venture company to oversee the running of these projects does not seem to me to make much difference operationally", Haighton-Williams said.

"There may be a genuine belief in government that this is a stepping stone to a cloud system or utility computing, but it doesn't feel like that to me - it feels like a different way to procure similar services that have been procured in the past.

"In reality, if you look at other government frameworks, they can already procure hosting in a very similar fashion."

One key issue will be a continuing gap between the flexibility of the new system and the flexibility offered by true public cloud services, he said.

"The problem is that to build such a platform, and then to make it deliver to a varied community, flexibility is required, and flexibility is something [government] procurement processes do not embrace. Sometimes that is for good reason, particularly with systems carrying higher protective markings.

"But in all likelihood this will be won by one of the existing large government data centre suppliers who will wrap up their present offerings in a way that makes it look like a true cloud: the same staff, in the same data centre doing the same things, but under a new framework. The requirement for higher level security accreditation almost guarantees that."

A better bridge to the public cloud might be to procure or build a solution offering cloud hosting on an auction basis, reflecting the commodity nature of true cloud services, Haighton-Williams said.

"Restrictions around the new contract mean it is likely to be let out a year at a time, with a minimum or maximum size, leaving limited room for real innovation", he said. "But if you look at the true commodity market, at providers such as Amazon, Google, or some of smaller players, you can buy hosting by the minute: minute by minute, hour by hour. Providing a standard for this would seem like a better step towards a true cloud solution.

"You could see something whereby those providers could auction say 200 computer hours on demand, and anyone who met the standards could join and offer services. It could be automated, as simple as clicking."

In 2010 Adaptavist developed a collaboration system for UK government called "Civil Pages", intended as a private social network for the entire civil service. The system was based on team collaboration product Confluence from Australian software company Atlassian.

However although the system is still operational, it has been moved to a team within The National Archives and has so far failed to live up to the original concept, Haighton-Williams said.

"Civil Pages is an opportunity, but it has never had the growth or success it deserves", he said. "The issue is not cost or scale, it is more cultural. The government still operates as a whole bunch of silos, and still struggles to use a centralised service."

Companies have until close of play on Friday 18 August to express an interest in bidding for the new Crown Hosting Service.

Pictured: Simon Haighton-Williams, chief executive, Adaptavist.
Crown Hosting Contract Notice:

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