Richard Blanford 17 June 2019

Councils and the complexities of cloud migration

While local authorities across the UK are adopting cloud, they have been much slower to do so than central government departments. After working on cloud implementations with both councils and government agencies, I believe there are some good reasons why. It’s certainly not due to a lack of knowledge or skill, or because they don’t understand the potential benefits cloud offers.

In my view, the challenge for local authorities is the wide range of services they provide. A typical unitary authority, for example, is likely to have between 30 and 50 key applications, mostly provided through third parties, handling services from council tax to parking and from planning to road maintenance. In contrast, a typical central government department has one main function, and so typically has only a few major systems to move to cloud.

Having a large number of small scale applications creates two issues. First, each one has to be migrated independently. It takes almost as long to migrate a small system to cloud as a large system; the process and rigour required are the same, whether the system has three or 300 servers, and the end result is that there is less realisable benefit from doing so.

Second, the applications that local authorities use are highly specialised and provided by different vendors. Many are developed on or depend on older technologies and use proprietary interfaces. Software as a Service (SaaS) versions are unlikely to be available, and the applications aren’t supported on Platform as a Service (PaaS), so the only cloud option is Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS). This only provides the basic server instance, leaving the council responsible for managing design, configuration and migration, as well as the interfaces with other systems such as asset management, workflow, GIS etc. Suddenly cloud has become much more complex and time consuming – a big contrast with the relative ease of moving email and file shares for desktop applications, where SaaS services such as Office 365 are readily available.

Central government departments, meanwhile, have a much smaller number of core applications. They also normally have the scale and resources to support the transition, whereas local authorities are managing continually falling budgets.

It’s not a surprise that reports show local authority cloud adoption is progressing slowly. Local Government Cloud Adoption 2018 from Eduserv and Socitm found that 62% of councils now use some form of cloud to deliver organisational IT services, but the rate of adoption had only increased by 10% in the last two years. Research from vendor Citrix found that 85%of respondents (40 councils) had less than half of their applications and data in the cloud.

In my view, local authorities who have already moved straightforward applications such as desktop productivity tools to cloud have two choices. Option one is to ‘lift and shift’ to public cloud IaaS. The benefit is that they get rid of their in-house infrastructure, but at the cost of having to solve significant integration issues, either taking internal staff time or done by third parties for a significant fee. Any developments they have carried out to enable integration with their other systems will either need to be configured into the cloud service, if possible, or be lost, potentially impacting the council’s business processes.

Option two is to review current applications and work out a plan to standardise to reduce the number of applications used, while deleting or archiving as much data as possible. With less complexity and volume, cloud migration becomes in effect an application update and replacement strategy. By mapping applications for the next few years and asking vendors for their roadmaps, local authorities can understand potential interactions and develop a phased migration plan for those applications which it makes sense to move.

They should be aware that current processes may need to be adapted or modified to maximise the benefit of using cloud. And even with the most careful planning, some vendor dependencies will remain, as we’ve experienced with some of our customers. When the choice is between paying £10,000 annually to host an application as it is, or £100,000 to redesign it, the balance of benefit versus reward is clear.

Local authorities face many challenges, and cloud is certainly not a panacea. Anyone who criticises local authorities for not adopting it quickly enough demonstrates a lack of understanding of how their IT systems have developed and the complexities of cloud migration.

Richard Blanford is chief executive of Fordway

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