Wednesday 28 March 2012

Cloud computing is bonkers or, as HMG put it, a "no-brainer"

The failures of government IT projects are well-known and have been for decades, during which the problems have been intractable. Now a solution is being championed by Her Majesty's Government – cloud computing.

What is cloud computing? And is it the answer?

HMG runs a blog called G-Cloud (the government cloud), on which last Friday Adrian Scaife from the Ministry of Justice posted an answer to the first question above, "A No Brainer":
Cloud computing is so easy to understand that even simple folk like me get the idea.
Mr Scaife should know all about the traditional problems of government computing. He works for NOMS, the National Offender Management Service, the travails of which have rarely been out of Private Eye for the past eight years. To pick just one of the hiccoughs suffered, in March 2009 the National Audit Office published a report on the NOMS computer system which includes this:
3.17 At the end of October 2007, £161 million had been spent on the project overall. We have not been able to ascertain precisely what this money was spent on because NOMS did not record expenditure against workstream before July 2007 ...
This patrician insouciance of Whitehall's when it comes to public money is just one of the aggravating features of government IT collected together in a report by the Public Administration Select Committee, Government and IT- "A Recipe For Rip-Offs": Time For A New Approach, a report which with good grace Mr Scaife refers to. It's a long report and readers may care to start with the contribution entitled Whitehall, Red Light District beginning at page Ev w7 to get the flavour of it. Clause 5 deals with cloud computing.

Mr Scaife's post promotes five alleged benefits of cloud computing which he says will help to solve the current problems of government IT:
  • No CapEx – you can stand up services in days, hours or in some cases minutes – try before you buy: spin up an AWS instance, sign up for Google Apps for Business or an Office 365 free trial and touch and feel it for yourself ...
  • Metered Services – you only pay for what you use.  If it doesn’t fit the bill, switch it off.  If it does work you can grow it incrementally ...
  • Scalability, flexibility, elasticity – All baked in.  You want to add a couple of hundred gigs of storage, another 50 or 5000 users, a new tenancy for an application, just switch it on.  And when your business changes and you don’t need it any more – no exit costs, just switch it off ...
  • Cheaper – the economies of scale the global-class cloud providers can realise drive unit costs to a level that can never be achieved through an on-premise approach.  In many cases, cloud services are free at the point of use because of these economies of scale, and because they are typically monetised by advertising – you can normally lose the ads for a paid business version of a cloud service ...
  • Vendor-led Innovation – One of the great things about cloud is that you don’t have to do upgrades, the cloud provider does it.  New features, patches, and upgrades are all part of the package.  Because the global market is a competitive place, as well as getting better, services can get cheaper too: AWS reduced their prices twice in 2011 ...
If there is no CapEx, no capital expenditure, then what Mr Scaife foresees is a new world in which government doesn't buy any expensive computers (any servers) itself. But someone has to buy them. The people buying them are AWS, Amazon Web Services, and other suppliers of cloud computing services. Someone must pay for all the spare capacity which would allow HMG to "scale up" any time it wants to, no delays involved. And someone must keep paying for it when HMG decides at the drop of a hat to "switch off". All that redundancy must be reflected in the costs.

What we're looking at is a return to the 1970s and timesharing. Back then, most companies couldn't afford mainframes or minicomputers and so they rented time on computers provided by the likes of GEISCO – General Electric Information Services Company – and Comshare and other smaller bureau operators. Timesharing costs went through the roof and the whole business was gratefully abandoned when PCs arrived in the 1980s.

HMG is welcoming the timesharing zombie back into Whitehall. And Mr Scaife, at least, offers no reason to believe that costs won't go through the roof again just like the last time.

Mr Scaife's post barely considers the potential disadvantages of cloud computing. The document is more like a piece of sales literature than a balanced assessment.

There are other opinions of the new world being sold to us here:
  • The OECD, for example, recommend that "cloud computing creates security problems in the form of loss of confidentiality if authentication is not robust and loss of service if internet connectivity is unavailable or the supplier is in financial difficulties".
  • ENISA, the EU's information security agency, casts more doubt on the advisability of cloud computing, concluding that "its adoption should be limited to non-sensitive or non-critical applications and in the context of a defined strategy for cloud adoption which should include a clear exit strategy".
  • Larry Ellison, the founder of Oracle, says frankly: "The interesting thing about cloud computing is that we've redefined cloud computing to include everything that we already do. The computer industry is the only industry that is more fashion-driven than women's fashion. Maybe I'm an idiot, but I have no idea what anyone is talking about. What is it? It's complete gibberish. It's insane. When is this idiocy going to stop?"
  • And as for Richard Stallman, he says that cloud computing is a "trap":
... Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation and creator of the computer operating system GNU, said that cloud computing was simply a trap aimed at forcing more people to buy into locked, proprietary systems that would cost them more and more over time.

"It's stupidity. It's worse than stupidity: it's a marketing hype campaign," he told The Guardian.

"Somebody is saying this is inevitable – and whenever you hear somebody saying that, it's very likely to be a set of businesses campaigning to make it true."
The Guardian quote one actual user of real live cloud computing services as follows:
We went ahead and moved our business to public cloud computing about 18 months ago. It has been a nightmare, there have been times when the company is down because our collaboration software, Basecamp, is unreachable. We also have an Amazon cloud solution. How secure is this, what if there is a breach? How do you even call Amazon, they don't even have a phone number for us? The level of transparency is not there.
Mr Scaife's assumption is that cloud computing offers greater security than can be achieved in-house. But how do you know? According to the Guardian again:
Despite these efforts, tough issues remain. One is that organisations often cannot perform audits to verify the vendor's claims. Google, for example, does not allow it. "It does more to impede the security, letting everybody in to take a look at everything," Feigenbaum says.
Google is another supplier of cloud computing and Eran Feigenbaum is their director of security for Google Apps. Are we really to believe that Google can provide higher security than HMG?

Maybe. We are used to finding fault with HMG. That doesn't mean that Google are faultless.

Let's be clear what Mr Scaife is talking about here. All our tax records, all our state education records, all our state healthcare records and state housing records, all our National Insurance and state pension records, all our criminal records, ... could be stored on Amazon web servers or Google web servers or anyone else's web servers.

Where would those servers be? Where would our data be? They could be anywhere. Anywhere where Amazon/Google can provide their allegedly scalable and flexible services most cheaply. Who has jurisdiction over the data if it's in Vanuatu (formerly the New Hebrides but now the Ripablik blong Vanuatu)? How do you enforce any British law there?

HMG might or might not be able to keep control. The US have taken steps to do so already, and not just to control their own data:
There is also concern about the US anti- terrorism legislation called the Patriot Act, which gives the US government a right of access to any data stored on US soil, and possibly any data on servers belonging to a US company, if it is deemed necessary for security investigations. In some cases, that is not an acceptable risk.
Mr Scaife acknowledges this problem:
Special needs
The operation of separate and parallel ICT systems for government departments is analogous to operating separate water or electricity supplies for government departments.  It is expensive, often unnecessary, and the benefits are dubious.  At the same time, government is in a unique position in that it must both protect assets of national security, and that it must provide adequate protection of the personal data entrusted to it.
If government is going to protect national security and the confidentiality of personal data, then that surely points firmly against cloud computing and Mr Scaife's putative cost savings won't be available after all. Alternatively, if HMG is determined to try to achieve those putative savings, will the population no longer be relying on HMG? Will we be relying instead on the good will of Amazon and Google? Is the job too difficult, and HMG is giving up on the business of government?

Having asserted that government's responsibilities are unique, three paragraphs later Mr Scaife says:
Government is now beginning to recognising the potential cloud has to help us deliver ‘better for less’, to drive down costs and to improve services.  Our job now is to seize the opportunity to capitalise on that.  Cloud is a ‘no-brainer’, but we need to avoid getting into a tiz about how scary it sounds to us and how ‘special’ we think we are.
Clearly, his point is that government computing requirements are not unique after all – "we need to avoid getting into a tiz about how ... ‘special’ we think we are". He thinks that's an argument for adopting cloud computing. It isn't. It's the reverse.

Anyone using the cloud has lost control of their data and of their costs. Do lawyers store your confidential data in the cloud? Let's hope not. They shouldn't. There's nothing special about government in this respect. HMG shouldn't adopt cloud computing either, any more than lawyers. Not if they're going to maintain national security. Not if they're going to take the confidentiality of personal data seriously. And not if they have a brain.

Public administration in the UK is in a parlous state. No-one doubts that there are real problems. Cloud computing is not the answer.


PS For what it's worth, DMossEsq posted a comment on the G-Cloud blog raising some of the questions above. The comment has been published but the last sentence, including a link to this article, has been removed. It's a small thing but was the comment edited in the UK? Or Vanuatu? How will you defend your position if your tax records are edited? And what if they're copied by Google, at the request of the US government? While framing your answers, please follow Mr Scaife's advice and try to "avoid getting into a tiz about how scary it sounds to [you] and how ‘special’ [you] think [you] are".


Anonymous said...

"Public administration in the UK is in a parlous state. No-one doubts that there are real problems. Cloud computing is not the answer."

your blogs are long on critique, short on proposals ... what are your proposals exactly?

David Moss said...

"Dematerialised ID is BCSL’s counter-proposal to the UK government’s proposed ID card scheme, which may or may not be deployed in eight years time in 2013. Critics of the tawdry scheme devised by the Home Office and their advisors are two-a-penny. Fewer people will have lobbied the government, the Home Office, the Home Affairs Committee and others with a well worked out alternative, based on more than two years of research, as BCSL have done."

That's what I wrote to John Reid in May 2006. I mention that to make it clear to you that I am alive to the danger of falling into that category of moaning whinger of the everything-that-is-is-wrong variety. What one might call the Guardian newspaper tendency. I am alive to it. And I attempt to avoid it.

In years of writing to politicians and officials and banks and telcos and others, speaking to them on the telephone and obtaining the odd meeting with them, I brought attention to the impracticalities and illogicalities of their plans and advocated the merits of dematerialised ID. It got me nowhere.

The obstinacy of Whitehall, its blindness to contrary evidence, its refusal to admit the validity of logical argument and its blithe acceptance of the waste of truckloads of public money coloured my opinions. Changed them – I started out believing like everyone else that Whitehall is a Rolls-Royce engine – and coloured them.

You do not, I notice, Anonymous, attempt to defend cloud computing from the criticisms levelled against it in the article above. Are you saying, illogically, that cloud computing must be pursued even though it won't deliver, simply because there is no alternative? Surely not.

If you're genuinely asking me for a well worked out alternative, I haven't got one. Not yet. A few pointers:

• Take account of the evidence.
• Be logical.
• Promote localism, deprecate centralisation.
• Grow out of the childish fascination with technology.
• Trust people more, every time, there is no alternative.
• Understand that government is not doing the same job as the likes of Amazon and eBay and Google and PayPal.
• Stay alert to the possibility that, if there is no way to do a job properly, then perhaps you should stop trying.
• Be much more open.
• Beware unhealthy, craven, beholden relationships with suppliers.
• Behave with dignity – if you find yourself defending the indefensible, stop.
• If you claim to be customer-centric, make sure you are.
• Be a bit careful with public money, it doesn't grow on trees.
• Admit the possibility that Whitehall should be accountable.
• Bow to the supremacy of parliament, the Executive isn't meant to be in charge.
• ...

That kind of thing. If and when I come up with an alternative, I'll be sure to tell you. And you? What have you come up with?

cloud deals said...

The points explained in the post are clear and all are proving what you have written in these post.. My point is that i want to switch from physical and in-house servers to cloud computing because investing in this new technology has many advantages for business management in term of work effectiveness and management cost ; However; since I have read some stuff about cloud computing information , and security, i become somewhat septic to invest mainly when i experienced a data storage crash with a cloud company that i do not want to name , so to what extent it is safe for data base storage and web hosting .

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