Navigating the hybrid cloud landscape in the UK public sector

hybrid cloud

In more than a decade since the UK government’s cloud-first policy was introduced, many public sector organisations have struggled to make the shift. Instead, a hybrid cloud model, which knits together public cloud offerings with a modern cloud-based operational model and on-premises data centres, is increasingly becoming a go-to solution for the UK public sector.

This transition isn’t without its challenges and opportunities, as highlighted by experts in the Hewlett Packard Enterprise documentary Consciously Hybrid. In this article we’ll explore the ideas shared by the contributors.

Where initially the cloud challenges were centred around the issues of moving away from legacy technology and systems, digital leaders are now also using the hybrid state of their data platforms as a driver for innovative operating models. In terms of digital strategies, cloud is not necessarily to be seen as the ultimate destination, but rather as a driver for wider transformation programmes and technology adoption.

Financial constraints and funding models

The financial implications of moving to a hybrid cloud model need to be properly understood. Hybrid isn't expensive in itself but a lack of strategy at the outset can cause unforeseen complexity and cost. Howe points out that many public sector organisations are managing dual environments, which can be more costly than expected. "You end up in this, well, now I'm managing two IT environments. And potentially I'm spending more than I thought I was going to spend."

Traditional capital expenditure (CapEx) models do not align well with the operational expenditure (OpEx) nature of cloud services, as UK Parliament’s former CDIO Tracey Jessup suggests. "A lot of the public sector has a quite capital-focused overall funding model. And that's quite a traditional model and isn't really best suited to the cloud resource-based service-based model." This misalignment will require a rethink of funding approaches to better accommodate the recurring costs associated with cloud services.

Research into IT spend suggests that CIOs may be consciously investing in “private cloud” to control costs and prepare for future AI workloads. Forrester’s Infrastructure Cloud Survey in 2023 suggested that 79% of the 1,300 polled were implementing internal private cloud in their organisations.

Sustainability and environmental impact

Sustainability is a critical consideration in the deployment of hybrid cloud solutions. According to digital consultant Chris Burnett "sustainability and social value are the two buzzwords in the sector today," driven by the UK government's aggressive target to be carbon neutral by 2050. The emphasis on sustainability is reflected in public procurement notices and tender requirements, pushing technology vendors to demonstrate their sustainable credentials.

However, the environmental benefits of cloud computing aren’t straightforward. Sustainability consultant Mateo Dugand points out that moving to cloud services often just shifts emissions from one place to another, rather than eliminating them. "Moving from an on-prem solution to a public cloud solution, for example, literally just moves your emissions from what we would call scope one and scope scope three, which are outsourced greenhouse gas emissions." This highlights the need for a holistic approach to sustainability that includes transparent reporting and genuine reductions in emissions.

Skills gap and operational challenges

Beyond the technology itself, one of the most pressing issues remains the skills gap among government DDaT teams. Darren Howe, former Deputy Director at Crown Commercial Service, emphasises: "There's a skills challenge. There's a finance challenge. There's an operating model challenge." Managing a hybrid environment requires distinct skills compared to traditional on-premises systems, making it difficult for IT administrators to adapt without adequate training.

Alex Hilton, recent CEO of the Cloud Industry Forum echoes this sentiment: "Many businesses still have a delay in terms of the technical capabilities, people being able to get up to the speed they need to be. And frankly, in the public sector, many organisations are just struggling to keep the lights on at the moment." This lack of expertise can lead to inefficiencies and increased costs, undermining the anticipated benefits of cloud adoption

The complexity of implementation

Implementing a hybrid cloud strategy is complex and requires careful planning. Public sector technologist Steve Holt mentioned points out: "There's always going to be a need for applications that have a certain sensitivity or built on certain technology that are just not suitable for the cloud. So hybrid is necessary." This necessity is due to multiple factors, including data sensitivity, legacy systems, and specific application requirements.

Hilton points out the hybrid cloud can be a more adaptable solution, which is beneficial for public sector organisations that need to balance modernising their IT infrastructure with maintaining existing services.

Ethical and social considerations

Beyond the technical and financial aspects, ethical and social considerations play a vital role in the public sector's adoption of hybrid cloud technologies. Ensuring that cloud technologies are used ethically and transparently is paramount, especially when these technologies impact public service delivery. Henry Rex, former Associate Director for Government at Tech UK,  emphasises the fundamental role the public sector has in guiding technology adoption. "It's about the mission of the public sector. It's improving people's lives. It's protecting the vulnerable." This mission-driven approach ensures that technological advancements align with the broader goals of public welfare and social good.

A consciously hybrid approach

The consensus among contributors suggests the future of data in the UK public sector is hybrid. Darren Howe suggests: "When we describe being consciously hybrid, we're really just talking about being open to the idea that cloud computing and technology can be delivered anywhere."

The hybrid model can offer flexibility, sustainability, and the potential for cost savings, but it also requires a strategic, well-informed approach. Public sector organisations need to address the skills gap, rethink funding models, and ensure ethical and sustainable practices to harness the full potential of hybrid cloud.

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