Finding your way in the cloud

Outsourcing data storage to the cloud has clear advantages, but these must be seen against possible turbulence in the sensitive environment of big data, as Tom Brewster reports

Over the coming months, citizens of ten London boroughs will see police officers on the beat with small cameras attached to their uniforms. The officers will be shooting footage so it’s easier to prosecute wrongdoers.

But what most people won’t know is that the collected data from these trial cameras won’t be hosted by Scotland Yard. It won’t even be held in the UK. It will be kept in an Amazon Web Services data centre in Ireland.

It’s part of a wider move by the Metropolitan Police to start using cloud computing, and to move away from being a paper-based organisation to a collaborative digital environment, where accessing files and important evidence is considerably swifter.

This shift is a sign that even the most high-profile of public-sector bodies is willing to put people’s data in the cloud. Not so long ago, many were undecided about the benefits of outsourcing IT infrastructure, but fears around security have since diminished, while the operational benefits are proving too attractive to ignore.

The use of external data centres across the public sector has been born out of some significant trends, namely big data and the huge cuts hitting local government.

Glasgow City Council is using much of the £24 million it received, for winning a UK government-backed Future Cities competition, on cloud technologies, which will make reams of data easily accessible to businesses so they can produce or improve products using the information.

London has already seen a range of benefits from open data, such as schemes to determine where best to place ambulances. Glasgow is hoping to emulate and exceed the UK capital’s example.

Cloud is the only option for ambitious open data initiatives, says Colin Birchenall, lead architect for Glasgow’s Future Cities demonstrator programme. “The answer isn’t on-premise with fixed hardware,” he says. “The answer is a cloud-based environment that gives us the ability to scale as demand grows – and it will help us increase collaboration across the city. The maturity of cloud is here.”

Much of the benefit for the open data initiative in Glasgow will be for small to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) and startups hoping to innovate with the data, Mr Birchenall says. Indeed, many believe this corner of the market will gain the most from cloud.

“The largest benefits, by far, will come from enabling SMBs. Cloud allows smaller firms to access capability they would otherwise not have the time, cash or skills to implement and manage,” says Dale Vile, chief executive and research director at analysts Freeform Dynamics. “This in turn encourages better exploitation of information and communications, and eases the path to adoption of modern working practices, from workforce mobility to outsourcing and partnering.”

What’s odd is that, despite the massive shift to cloud, few can agree on whether money spent on technology can actually be saved by using it.

Mohammed Gamil, chief operating officer at the Islamic Bank of Britain, which is using a range of cloud services from Salesforce customer relationship management to Microsoft Azure hosting, says there are clear time savings as a result of not having to update software or manage the hardware. But he concedes that it is “not so easy to quantify the benefit”. “I can confirm that the cost of IT didn’t go up,” he adds.

Richard Godfrey, ICT strategy infrastructure and programme manager at Peterborough City Council, which is hoping to move its entire IT estate over to the cloud in the future, says it’s not about savings in IT, but in other departments. “My main driver is to put technology into the estate that allows other departments to make bigger savings,” he says.

However, there are clear business risks with moving to the cloud. Exiting the cloud is one of the most significant. Mr Gamil says there should be a whole industry based on helping companies move back from the cloud to on-premise, such is the complexity of the task. “Our own exit strategy will be quite massive. I agree it’s a risk,” he says. “Have we mitigated the risk fully? No.”

The use of external data centres across the public sector has been born out of big data and the huge cuts hitting local government

While few catastrophic security breaches have been reported, cyber attacks on cloud services are also likely to increase as adoption rises. “As more people and companies are reliant on cloud services, we’ve seen a rise in attacks against data in the cloud. Although not very new, the fact that people are more dependent upon the cloud means the impact is far greater,” says Javvad Malik, security analyst at 451 Research.

That’s why plenty of truly sensitive information has to stay within the confines of the organisation. Almost 20 per cent of UK organisations do not use the cloud at all and of those that do 61 per cent store less than half their data in the cloud, according to a survey of businesses by security firm Barracuda Networks.

Glasgow’s Mr Birchenall says an operations centre being set up by the council that will be co-locating a number of services, including traffic management, CCTV and event resiliency, which will help with the upcoming Commonwealth Games, will not be using cloud technologies. The information is simply too sensitive.

As with any IT decision, financial and security risk have to be weighed against the benefits, so cloud should only be adopted where the benefits outweigh the risks, says Mr Vile. “For larger entities, we advise a ‘source agnostic’ approach – you select the right delivery model for the job at hand. Cloud is not always the best option,” he says.

The decision of what to shift to the cloud is often harder for bigger businesses, adds Mr Gamil, noting the comparatively slow uptake among bigger banks. That’s partly because the cost-per-employee payment model of cloud is obviously far greater for larger entities.

For SMBs and startups, the cloud is almost a no-brainer. Yet as businesses grow, the risks increase and costs rise – and so should their suspicion of outsourcing sensitive data.