There are more opportunities but also challenges in keeping up a fast pace in cloud migration, writes Craig Taylor, director cloud solutions at Phoenix Software
One of the positives to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic is that the public sector has learned it can achieve digital change more quickly, including its ongoing shift to using cloud services.
Organisations are seeing a wider range of benefits and realising they can obtain them at speed; but there are possible pitfalls that they need to take into account in doing it effectively.
This provided the subject for a UKA Live discussion involving Alison Hughes, assistant director of digital and customer services at Liverpool City Council, Carol Williams, interim director of digital and transformation at Walsall Council, Ian Roddis, digital director of Kettering General Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, UKA publisher Helen Olsen Bedford and myself.
It threw a spotlight onto issues that have emerged from the fact that the public sector had to implement a big change in the way it worked during 2020, with cloud providing a crucial element.
The experience of the participants was that their organisations had already taken significant steps towards the cloud, but this had to be accelerated to maintain operations during the lockdown and find new ways of supporting vulnerable people.
Underlying this was a sharp change in attitudes, with many people who had previously been cautious or openly resistant to new approaches suddenly realising the necessity of shifting operations onto new systems and into cloud services. The view was reinforced by an audience poll during the discussion that showed almost two-thirds identified a wider acceptance of digital, data and technology within their organisations as a major development.
Appetite for risk
This has come down to a change in mindset in which many organisations have collectively found a greater appetite for risk. While there have been long standing concerns around security and cost in moving to the cloud, there is now a wider recognition that the major cloud vendors often provide a more secure option than is possible on-premise, and that intelligent cost modelling can make the change work financially – even with the need to shift funds from capex to opex.
Nothing is guaranteed in these, but it has been necessary to take a chance and in most cases it has come off successfully. Subsequently, a pragmatic and more positive perspective has taken hold throughout organisations.
There is a greater appreciation of the potential benefits, encouraged by the experiences of quickly setting up cloud based contact centres, rolling out collaboration tools for remote working and adopting software-as-a-service to meet new demands. Another poll produced notable results, showing the potential for cloud to provide a platform for future analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence as the top opportunity, followed by the capacity to ‘lift and shift’ data, to improve flexibility and reduce costs.
But this has come with a growing awareness of issues that could undermine the achievements.
Among these are that most organisations are still dependent to varying degrees on legacy systems which may not integrate smoothly with cloud services, but which would be expensive to replace in the short term. They have to continue to work with them for a time and learn how to manage a digital estate that combines a hybrid, and sometimes awkward, combination of cloud and on-premise systems and manage the flows of data between them.
The move away from legacy is going to be an incremental journey and while it continues there will be a skill in getting the most from cloud systems.
Similarly, they cannot assume that all of their suppliers are cloud ready. This can have an effect on how procurement is managed and impose demands on the digital infrastructure, possibly requiring that some systems have to continue running from in-house data centres.
This is part of a broader issue in which a judgement is needed on the value of these data centres. There is a case that a limited in-house capacity should be retained as a security and resilience measure, making it possible to isolate key systems from any cyber attack; but this could undermine the value of some cloud services if they have been designed to operate solely in the cloud.
Alongside this is the need to find the right costing model. The tension between capex, which is often favoured by financial chiefs, and cloud services that are better suited to opex is a familiar one for the public sector. There might be imaginative ways to resolve the tension, but these are likely to depend on the internal dynamics of organisations and the willingness of financial teams to provide flexibility over the long term.
Need for skills
There will be a skill in getting this right, as with finding the right way to manage the distribution of workloads between different cloud services and in-house systems. As cloud services evolve so do the skills needed to exploit their promise, and these are always going to be in limited supply.
The fact is that skills are short all round, not only in the public sector, and it will need a way to develop in-house talent and retain it for as long as possible. For some people an appeal to the public service ethos will be important, but there will also have to be high quality training and attractive career paths.
There is also the issue of the public having the appropriate skills to use the self-service capabilities in many cloud offerings. It is worth reiterating that those who most need public services are often the ones most likely to lack digital skills, and they need support in ensuring they can obtain the full value of the change. Digital inclusion goes hand-in-hand with exploiting the benefits of cloud.
These are awkward issues but not impossible to resolve, and there is a prospect of maintaining much of the momentum of the past year in continuing the migration and reaping the benefits from cloud. At Phoenix Software we can offer support with a portfolio of IT solutions and managed services capabilities and the experience of working in partnership with public sector organisations on similar journeys.
There will be challenges of the coming months and years, but they are unlikely to be as stiff as those the public sector faced in 2020, and there is a prospect of making more of the cloud for the public good.
Phoenix Software specialises in helping the public sector migrate to the cloud and accelerate digital transformation - find out more about public cloud here and Microsoft Azure VMware Solution (AVS) here
You can also download the UKA Inform briefing note: 'How the public sector can take legacy VMware estates directly into Azure'
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