Cloud computing services have grown exponentially in recent years. In many cases they are the driving force behind industry 4.0, or the fourth industrial revolution, enabling Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML), or the Internet of Things (IoT) powering smart homes and smart cities.
High speed networks are enabling secure data sharing over the Internet, resulting in a shift from compute processing in ones own server rooms or data centres to a central processing plant. Here technology can be agile and highly available whilst taking advantage of economies of scale. In much the same way as our ancestors built their own generators to consume electricity; each factory buying and installing components with specialist staff to keep systems running, before eventually moving to utility based consumption of electricity as a service.
Data sharing and data analytics are at the heart of digital transformation. Successful companies are using data with services consumed over the Internet to innovate faster and deliver value; enhancing user experience and increasing revenue.
It is important for organisations adopting cloud computing to define a cloud strategy; this helps ensure coordination and connectivity of existing and new applications, whilst providing a sustainable delivery method for future digital services. A cloud strategy can assist with standardising security and governance alongside reducing shadow IT sprawl and spiralling costs.
The first step is to have a clear understanding of what the organisation as a whole expects to gain from the consumption of cloud technologies. This isn’t limited to the IT teams but is predominantly about business outcomes, for example improved innovation and agility; faster deployment of products or features, application performance and security enhancements for remote workforce, or simply the change in consumption and charging model.
It may be that a compelling event triggered the cloud focus, such as a security breach, site reliability issue, or major system outage. Reducing carbon emissions is part of the wider corporate strategy for many public sector organisations, and replacing old or inefficient data centre and cooling equipment with hyperscalers generating renewable energy can certainly help. Whatever the reasons, they should be captured and worked into your strategy. Doing so will help identify deliverables and migration assessments for brownfield environments.
Public Sector Cloud First
The UK Government first introduced the Government Cloud First policy in 2013 for technology decisions when procuring new or existing services. The definition being that public cloud should be considered in the first instance, primarily aimed at Software as a Service (SaaS) models, unless it can be demonstrated that an alternative offers better value for money.
During the COVID-19 outbreak, the UK saw unprecedented demand for digital services. The National Health Service (NHS) in particular responded quickly; scaling out the 111 Online service to handle 30 million users between 26 February and 11 August, with 6 million people completing the dynamic coronavirus assessment. The peak number of users in a single day was over 950,000; up 95 times from the previous 10,000 daily average. NHS Digital and NHSmail rolled out Microsoft Teams to 1.3 million NHS staff in 4 days, which would go on to host over 13 million meetings and 63 million messages between 23 March and 5 October. Both of these achievements were made possible virtually overnight by the speed and agility of cloud services.
When planning your cloud strategy speak to other people in your community who are using cloud services and review case studies such as How the Welsh Government migrated their technology to the cloud and How Network Rail implemented its hybrid cloud strategy. Your cloud strategy will be individual to your own organisation to solve your unique requirements, but you can absolutely learn from others along the way.
Cloud Guidance for the Public Sector
Following up on the Government Cloud First policy of 2013, the UK Government released further information in 2017 around the use of cloud first, how to choose cloud computing services for your organisation, how to approach legacy technology, and considerations for vendor lock-in. The guidance reiterates the need to consider cloud computing before other options to meet point 5 of the Technology Code of Practice (use cloud first). The Technology Code of Practice can also feed into your cloud strategy:
- Define user needs
- Use open source and open standards to ensure interoperability and future compatibility
- Make sure systems and data are secured appropriately
More recently, in March 2020, the Government Digital Service published Cloud Guidance for the Public Sector. The guidance is set out in easy to consume chunks with links out to further content for each area. Noteworthy sections include:
- People and Skills: the way technical, security, commercial, and financial teams work will change. New processes and skills will be introduced, and people need to be fully informed throughout the process. It is essential that HR are able to recruit and retain the right skillsets, and upskill people through training and development. Roles and responsibilities should be defined, and extended to service providers and teams as the strategy is executed.
- Security: the first 2 words in the above guidance paper are key; “Properly implemented”. The overwhelming majority of security breaches in the cloud are due to incorrect configurations. Links are included to the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) guidance on cloud security and zero trust principles.
- Data Residency and Offshoring: each data controller organisation is responsible for their own decisions about the use of cloud providers and data offshoring. The government say you should take risk-based decisions whilst considering the Information Commissioner’s Office guidance. Data offshoring is not just the physical location of the data but also who has access to it, and whether any elements of the service are managed outside of the UK.
Further documentation from the UK Government on Managing Your Spending in the Cloud identifies procurement models and cost optimisation techniques when working with cloud services. It advises that a central cloud operations team, made up of both technical and commercial specialists, is formed to monitor usage, billing, and resource optimisation to reduce costs.
Tools like CloudHealth by VMware help simplify financial management. CloudHealth makes recommendations on cost savings, works across cloud platforms, and crucially provides financial accountability by cost centre. A charging model where internal departments or lines of business pay for what they consume will typically yield reduced consumption and therefore lower costs.
Build management tooling into your cloud framework and aim for consolidated and cloud agnostic tooling. This article discusses operational considerations in the cloud with industry experts on technology site Protocol; “Security vulnerabilities, data portability and specialised talent retention are among the challenges highlighted by members of Protocol’s Braintrust“.
The National Data Strategy
In September 2020 the UK Government published the National Data Strategy. The strategy focuses on making better use of data to improve public services and society as a whole. It does this by identifying the following pillars; data foundations, data skills, data availability, and responsible data. Underpinning the National Data Strategy is a modern infrastructure which should be safe and secure with effective governance, joined-up and interoperable, resilient and highly available. New technology models like cloud, edge, and secure computing enhance our capabilities of providing shared data in a secure manner. The infrastructure on which data relies is defined by the strategy as the following:
“The infrastructure on which data relies is the virtualised or physical data infrastructure, systems and services that store, process and transfer data. This includes data centres (that provide the physical space to store data), peering and transit infrastructure (that enable the exchange of data), and cloud computing that provides virtualised computing resources (for example servers, software, databases, data analytics) that are accessed remotely.“
Section 4.2.1 of the document notes that “Even the best-quality data cannot be maximised if it is placed on ageing, non-interoperable systems“, and identifies long-running problems of legacy IT as one such technical barrier. The theme of this section is that data, and we can extend this to applications, should be independent of the infrastructure it runs on. Some of the commitments outlined are also relevant to cloud strategy and can be used as part of an internal IT governance framework:
- Creating a central team of experts ensuring a consistent interpretation and implementation of policies
- Building a community of good practice
- Learning and setting best practice and guidance through lighthouse projects
Further demonstrating the importance of data, NHSx launched the Centre for Improving Data Collaboration; a new national resource for data-driven innovation. In a blog announcing the new team Matthew Gould, CEO, NHSx, said “Good quality data is crucial to driving innovation in healthcare. It can unlock new technologies, power the development of AI, accelerate clinical trials and enable better interactions with patients“. NHSx are working on a new UK Data Strategy for Health and Social Care expected late 2020, and have also collaborated with Health Education England on the Digital Readiness Programme to support data as a priority specialism in health and care.
NHS Digital Public Cloud Guidance
In January 2018 NHS Digital, along with the Department of Health and Social Care, NHS England, and NHS Improvement, released guidance for NHS and social care data: off-shoring and the use of public cloud services. This national guidance for health and care organisations can also be applied to the wider public sector dealing with personal information. Andy Callow, CDIO, Kettering General Hospital, also makes a great case for the NHS to embrace the cloud in this Health Tech Newspaper article.
As per the Government Cloud Guidance for the Public Sector; each data controller is responsible for security of their data. The NHS Digital guidance outlines a 4-step process for making risk-based decisions on cloud migrations.
- Steps 1 & 2 are to understand the data and assess the risks:
- Use a risk model to classify data and proportion security measures. The National Cyber Security Centre Cloud Security Principles offers advice, as does NHS Digital’s Health and Social Care Cloud Risk Framework and accompanying Health and Social Care Data Risk Model.
- The National Data Guardian advises that a Senior Information Risk Owner (SIRO) is involved in the decision-making process and is comfortable with the security arrangements in place, where patient data is being hosted this should also include Caldicott Guardians.
- Data should be stored in accordance with European Union General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR; this is not exclusive to cloud computing and is applicable across all systems).
- Steps 3 & 4 are to implement and monitor data protection controls.
- NHS Digital’s Health and Social Care Cloud Security Good Practice Guide works hand in hand with the Health and Social Care Data Risk Model.
- National Cyber Security Essentials and the Health and Social Care Cloud Security One Page Overview can be used as general guides to security arrangements.
In its review into patient data in the NHS, the Care Quality Commission defines data security as an umbrella for availability, integrity, and confidentiality. With this in mind systems should always be designed with the expectation of failure, across multiple Availability Zones or regions where offshoring policies permit, and with appropriate Disaster Recovery and backup strategies.
As systems and dependencies become cloud based and potentially distributed across multiple providers, more importance than ever is placed on network architecture, latency, and resilience. Software Defined Wide Area Network (SD-WAN) and Secure Access Service Edge (SASE) solutions like VeloCloud by VMware provide secure, high performance connectivity to enterprise and cloud or SaaS based applications.
Where digital services need to be accessed externally using national private networks, like the Health and Social Care Network (HSCN), organisations may consider moving them to Internet facing. This reduces network complexity and duplication whilst making services more accessible and interoperable. According to NHS Digital’s Internet First Policy “new services should be made available on the internet, secured appropriately using the best available standards-based approaches“.
When writing your cloud strategy document, it should be based on the goals and objectives of the organisation. The strategy document does not necessarily need to define the cloud provider or type of hosting, instead it should set out how you meet or solve your business needs or problems, creating outcomes that have a direct impact on the experience of patients, users, or service consumers.
The strategy should be kept simple and high level enough that all areas of the business are able to understand it. Cloud technology moves fast, and guidance shifts with it, your strategy and policies should be reviewed regularly but the overarching strategy should not require wholesale changes that create ambiguity. Eventually, leaders will need to define lower level frameworks that balance visibility, cost, availability and security, with agility, flexibility, choice, and productivity. These frameworks along with the high-level strategy should be well documented and easily accessible.