Archive for September, 2010

Thinking Out Cloud

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

I was recently involved in a roundtable discussion (first of series) that aims to try and dispel some of the myth that surrounds Cloud Computing and attempts to get the focus away from the technology and more to the business outcomes it affords.  For my part I was asked to write a pre-amble to frame the discussion which I thought some of you may enjoy…

image“I signed up for a career in IT because I was a dreamer (and maybe I watched a little too much Star Trek as a kid). My dream was all of the great things that technology could enable in a modern society. 20 years on, I’m still here and I’m still living the dream – great things have happened, massive change has taken place and technology is pretty much a pervasive part of the way we each live, work and play.

So when a couple of year ago, we began down the hype curve of cloud computing being "the future of IT" you can imagine my interest, what is this thing that could be so important and yet so elusive to describe, understand and in some cases deliver? I set out on a quest to find out the transformative outcomes that cloud computing would enable.

If cloud really was the future, I wanted it to solve world peace, find cures for major medical problems, save the planet, hell, I also secretly wanted it to give me that hoverboard I’ve been promised in so many late night low budget sci-fi films.

But as you all well know, and as I now understand – cloud computing in itself is not an outcome, it is merely an enabler, a quiet, yet substantial, aid to let us be better at doing what we do.

Starting a conversation with cloud computing is a bit like standing up at the beginning of the movie and declaring "Bruce Willis is a Ghost!". Ultimately that’s the destination, but in itself it’s meaningless. Without understanding the context of where you actually are and, more importantly, really getting underneath the outcome you want to achieve, you’re going to struggle to make sense of why cloud is even relevant, never mind so beneficial that it could completely transform the way you do business.

As technologists, our job is to make technology as transparent as possible, we must resist the temptation to lead with the solution. I firmly believe our job is to ensure that people are focused on the actual task in hand not on how to operate the tools – the less people have to worry about how the technology works, the more they can focus on whatever it is that is important and unique to them.

To do this we really need to stay focused on the (holistic) outcomes that our customers are looking for, and then find the right way to make technology as transparent as possible to ensure their success and in a way, this becomes one of the key strengths of the cloud approach. Like so often in this game, we tend to view everything in a binary manner – all or nothing. When talking about cloud, we assume it’s everything to the cloud or nothing at all. In reality it will actually is much more fluid than that.

There are four key pillars that provide the cloud platform for our success, each are important and relevant, but for different reasons and applications. The pillars start on the far left with the traditional on premise datacentre, next the same but virtualised. For the third we make a big leap out of the organisation to a private cloud and finally on the far right, our old friend the public cloud. The important thing to recognise is that each of these pillars are essential in the delivery of a technology foundation and what is really required is a way of seamlessly moving from left to right as the solutions and economics allow. Public cloud has a lot to offer, by sheer virtue of the economies of scale, at the other end, the on-premise data centre is still important for some who may have more significant demands around control and performance. Many organisations get lost in this discussion, spending countless hours debating where they want to be on the scale. The simple truth is that the economics of each pillar should actually make the decisions obvious. Ideally all the commodity, infrastructure stuff should exist where it’s cheapest and all the complex, unique stuff where you have more control. Ultimately the answer will be that organisations will exist in multiple places, creating the concept of the hybrid cloud.

One of the other common problems stemming from the ambiguity of "cloud computing" is the confusion between infrastructure and innovation in how we procure and design cloud based solutions. I think of cloud computing as a spectrum, at one end there is the infinitely scalable, ultimately agile promise that has received so much of the cloud computing limelight and at the other end, there is the no-frills, black box, commodity service – IT’s equivalent of the electric grid. All too often we see customers trying to be agile and innovative with a no-frills commodity service and ultimately getting frustrated with the results. This is not helpful and it adds to the confusion and concern about the viability of cloud computing in any context. If we identify and separate out the areas where we want basic, commodity vs those where we want the agile and flexibility cloud also affords, we will enable far greater success not just in the use of cloud computing, but in the ultimate outcomes our customers are looking to achieve.

I suspect that in 10 minutes, I’ve not managed to help clear any of the confusion or ambiguity that exists around this critical area, but I do hope that I’ve at least managed to set the stage for what promises to be a fascinating debate.

Finally, all to often when I’m talking about cloud computing I’m reminded of a conversation I had as a kid with my Dad, an engineer of some repute who wanted me to follow in his footsteps but was obviously frustrated at my lack of talent in the key areas of thermodynamics and thrust co-efficients – he used to watch me, bumbling my way around the workshop, hammer in hand looking for things I could hit, he would simply smile and say "Dave, when all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail". Cloud computing represents a very powerful hammer – our responsibility as technologists is to make sure it strikes home on the right nails…”

The future of digital public services

Friday, September 10th, 2010

Spurred on by Martha Lane Fox and her team’s request for ideas around the future for Directgov, I’ve doing a fair bit of work around the framework for the building blocks of delivering digital services.

I suppose it’s not rocket science, but to me it seems really important to break away from the model of providing web “destinations” for specific services to focus on a more federated approach that sees access to key public services being delivered in the locations where citizens work, live and play.

It just seems wrong in an allegedly citizen centric world that we would still expect them to come to us rather than to be wherever they choose to be.

That in itself isn’t all that hard, the rest of the world is moving that way so there is a lot of momentum (and experience) we can use to help but what I think is important to recognise, is that there are four key pillars, foundations if you like, that must be available to make this work, specifically, we’re going to need:

The future of digital public services

  1. A federated, tiered identity service
  2. An approach to personal, private and public data that is joined up and consistent.
  3. Standard (open) definitions for access devices (e.g. Web, PC, Mobile, SMS, Human etc)
  4. Finally, and crucially for Directgov, a citizen facing application catalogue for citizen, public, private and 3rd sector “applications” (Where an application is anything from a piece of information to piece of software.)

These are pretty big things (which I know are already being considered by many) but we need to move fast – we also should not look to duplicate this, should there be multiple “identity” projects running in Government? I hope not.

I’ll come back to identity, data and devices in subsequent posts (all around the concept of Government as Platform – watch this space), but for now, let’s focus on the opportunity for Directgov (or any focal point for public service delivery) – “connecting services across government to make life easier”.  The key opportunity I see is for them to be the “Citizen App Store” offering a catalogue of applications for use across a range of platforms, locations and devices.

In my view they should continue to be the focal point for all public services but should especially focus on federating access in other relevant locations e.g. selling tax-discs on Autotrader.co.uk or providing FCO Travel advice within MSN.co.uk/travel (thanks Jimmy).

The key to this is that Directgov should continue to move to be the facilitators not owners or delivers of the content and apps, they should establish the proper governance, standards and quality assurance for app providers, setting minimum standards that ensure quality and interoperability.

If successful, they’ll be offering application and content providers, the best route to a mass, targeted audience.

Best of all they’ll be seen to be hanging out in all the right places – where our citizens want to be not where we force them to go.