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Q&A: Cloud Computing and the Public Sector

by Andy Bruen, public sector framework manager at IT provider Softcat

Cloud this, cloud that…

‘Cloud’ and ‘cloud computing’ are the buzzwords of the day. And with good reason too. Host your data on the internet (or ‘in the cloud’, if you’re already down with the lingo), rather than on your own managed servers, and you make it more accessible, as well as easier and less expensive to update. Do the same for software and there is no longer any need for users to install it on their computers – instead, they can access the latest up-to-date version on the web. And it just so happens that cloud-based software is cheaper to implement, so there are cost savings to be made for any public sector organisation that’s due an IT upgrade.

All things considered, it’s perplexing that the public sector is taking such a long time to embrace the cloud. There are fewer early adopters than you might expect, particularly when you consider the relatively fast uptake in the private sector. It’s possible that what’s holding back public sector IT procurement teams is that they don’t yet feel they have the experience they need to choose the right solutions. Shopping for cloud solutions isn’t the same as shopping for laptops. Buyers are not quite sure what to look for, or how much to pay for it – particularly when ‘it’ is a constantly evolving, fast-moving target.

But as you might expect, buyers who take the time to consult knowledgeable cloud providers can find all the answers they need. Relatively quickly, they can achieve a frame of reference to inform their buying decisions, so they can feel confident about those decisions once they have made them. Here are some of the questions that public sector customers frequently ask us:

Q: Can the cloud help us make quick cost savings?

A: Yes. If an organisation wants to prioritise making cost savings in the short term, it should ask its cloud provider about ‘software as a service’ (SaaS). More often than not, by moving to a SaaS cloud services model for some applications, it is possible to make significant savings over existing in-house IT applications. SaaS providers can charge less for developing, maintaining and hosting software when their costs are spread over many users; some charge for access to the software on a ‘pay as you go’ basis.

Q: Can the cloud help us to reduce capex?

A: Yes. A lot of the people we talk to want to avoid capital costs, but would like to keep using the applications they have developed and the licenses for software they already have. A good option for these organisations is ‘infrastructure as a service’ (IaaS). They pay service providers each month to set up virtual machines and storage and network services. Having a complete infrastructure solution provided as a managed service means a public sector organisation no longer needs to procure, maintain or update its infrastructure itself. The IaaS model lets organisations exceed normal demand for short periods when necessary – it’s a flexible solution.

Q: What about our data – is that safe in the cloud?

A: Yes – depending on the level of security your provider offers, data in the cloud is safe. There are different levels of physical security from Tier 1 to Tier 4, which the Ministry of Defence uses. The data centre that we operate uses the ultra-secure Tier 3 level of security, which is robust and meets the approval of our customers, including banks and legal services organisations. If sharing server space was the same as sharing data, there would be many fewer reputable organisations already using the cloud to access, share or deliver data or software.

Q: Is it a problem that we have no training?

A: Many public organisations have no training in virtualisation or cloud services management, so this is a fairly common question. It is, of course, possible for organisations to take advantage of cloud computing without having these skills from the outset. Cloud services providers should be able to offer pre-sales support free of charge if required, together with a level of service that meets customers’ needs.

Whatever an organisation’s data and software needs, the shift towards cloud-based solutions is now in full swing. By taking the time to understand what solutions are available on the market, the public sector can take advantage of it now, and make significant cost savings in the process.

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