Thursday, 15 July 2010

G-Cloud – data centre or true cloud?

My latest project has given me considerable exposure to the design and development of new applications to be hosted in the ‘cloud’ - albeit for a commercial company rather than a public sector customer. However, it has led to a number of contacts asking for my opinion on the Government’s G-Cloud initiative.

On paper, G-Cloud is potentially a money-saving initiative even if, as I suspect, it is more a shared data centre than a true cloud computing initiative. The question is whether the project can be made attractive to the many, largely autonomous, organisations that form the UK Public Sector. Whilst Central Government departments can perhaps be expected to sign up to this initiative (although I doubt that there will be universal acceptance without the use of a stick or a very large carrot), past experience has shown that other organisations like local authorities, police and others will be far more reluctant.

As I’ve discovered in my cloud projects, once the security issue has been overcome, the next most important factor is cost and the ease with which additional computing power can be bought on stream to deal with peaks in demand. Can G-Cloud match commercial cloud providers such as Microsoft, Amazon or others?

My view is that it is unlikely to. Running a cloud purely for the UK Public Sector means that it will have to be sized to cope with the peak demands of its customers – peaks that will in many cases all occur at the same time. If a flexible pricing policy is adopted, then I suspect that it cannot be competitive with commercial cloud suppliers who manage a wide variety of peak demands, and can therefore spread their costs better. And what comes first? – the computing power or the demand? – in a public sector heavily constrained by budget restrictions can the computing power be put in place before the demand is contracted?

No – I suspect that G-Cloud will be more a shared data centre, with organisations committing to take up a dedicated level of computing power, with the level of pay-for-what-you-use computing limited by relatively high on-demand pricing (but still likely to be cheaper than running in-house options).

Also, it will be interesting to see if the concept of the Government App Store succeeds or not. In theory it should, but in practice I fear it will be limited by the current architecture of many of the existing applications used within the UK Public Sector. In the short-term, what I expect instead is a few suppliers cleverly offering a SaaS pricing approach on existing ‘legacy’ applications without embracing a true on-demand use of hardware – most probably against a ‘minimum commitment’ that will limit the cost savings for users.

But given a software generation or two, I believe new applications will be developed that have been designed to make optimum use of true on-demand, cloud computing systems. Only then will the real cost benefits of cloud computing possibly be realised by the UK Public Sector.

Monday, 12 July 2010

No surprises with cancellation of BSF

I guess that the largest announcement whilst I was in N America was the cancellation of the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme.

The cancellation should not come as a surprise to suppliers – the Conservatives’ opposition to such programmes was very clear, and even Alastair Darling’s announcements on capital spending (in the 2009 Budget Report he signalled a halving of the government’s capital programme from £44 billion to £22 billion per annum) meant that were Labour re-elected, the BSF programme was unlikely to continue. Over the past 18 months I’ve worked on a number of business plans in the Education sector, and each one identified the potential cancellation of BSF as a major external risk factor.

Leaving aside the political arguments, working in the software supplier space, personally I’m pleased to see the back of BSF. The programme was vastly complicated, bid processes involved crowds of unnecessary people, far too many tiers of contractors and sub-contractors were involved, and the resulting main contracts seemed over-priced and poor value to the customer.

The impact on the ICT main contractors will be immense. They have incurred massive bid costs on the basis of gaining volume and recouping their costs from rolling out solutions to multiple schools across the regions – roll-outs that are now unlikely to happen. However, I believe that the canny suppliers will keep in there – the BSF programme may be dead, but the need for new build and modernisation of secondary schools remains – the building programme will be cut back, but the need for ICT will remain – and if the procurement is devolved more, then perhaps that ICT procurement will become less complex, it may again be possible to deal with the customer staff that matter, and perhaps, just perhaps, customers will focus more on the real educational computing needs, rather than the suits’ view of life…..

However, in the post-BSF (and post-BECTA) era, if we are to have devolved procurement of new ICT for schools, I believe it will be essential for central government to retain a central advisory and supervision role to help the agreement and implementation of open standards across all areas of software in use at schools. Allowing an unmanaged explosion of small-system developments/implementations could result in a bigger long-term waste of taxpayers’ money than the planned ICT expenditure in the expensive BSF programme.

Seeing off the grizzly in my OWL…

I was fortunate to spend the last week of my time in North America in Yellowstone, where I was able to knock off another item on my OWL (Outrageous Wish List) when I met up (at a safe distance) with a grizzly bear (and its 3 cubs).

In talking to my hosts about my OWL, I was, once again, made aware of the American focus almost exclusively on work, and their general lack of planning of their own personal lives. At this stage I can plug the services of Richard Maybury who, in addition to helping me manage my work activities better, taught me the need to use the same techniques in managing my personal life – one of the ideas being to build an OWL of 10-20 things that you want to do in your life – and plan to knock 1-2 items off the list each year.

OK – so I’ve only managed to knock 4 items off my OWL in the past 5 years (getting to Yellowstone and meeting a bear was one) – but having the OWL (as well as using several of other time-management techniques in my personal, as well as my work, life) has made a big difference in my life.

In the USA they talk of bucket lists instead of OWLs, but surprisingly none of the people I met out there have one – do you?