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Cloud? It's not always a way to save money

Sade Laja Published 16 February 2012

'Cloud? It's not always a way to save money'

Head of ICT at South Lanarkshire council Kay Brown talks to Sade Laja about her authority's use of cloud and mobile web publishing, and her thoughts on bring your own device

With the Cabinet Office soon to announce the initial batch of suppliers for its G-Cloud framework, talk of cloud services is rife among Whitehall and suppliers alike.

Adoption of cloud services is often framed within discussions on saving money. For South Lanarkshire council's head of ICT and Socitm VP Kay Brown, the assumption that cloud equals lower costs is one that should be challenged.

"It's not always a way to save money. Yes, you get shot of the hassle of having your own infrastructure if you want, but from an application provision [perspective], it's not cheaper," she says.

Cloud's positive associations around cutting costs have also seen the term co-opted by IT staff and vendors alike, and applied to services that may appear similar but are not true cloud.

"Not everybody understands what it means," says Brown who, in a discussion an individual from the Cabinet Office, was told: "You IT guys have always got to find a new word for something you've had for years".

"I understand cloud, but in line with what somebody else in the Cabinet Office said, and this is a very naïve view in my opinion, they said, 'It's just software or hardware provisioning remotely,' so it's almost as if there is nothing new," she adds.

South Lanarkshire's own dalliances with the cloud came with a recent implemention of Jadu's Weejot mobile app publishing software, which allows the council to automatically produce and update mobile web apps aimed at citizens. Using the software as a service platform the council is able to pick from Jadu's range of ready-made apps, which can be customised to the council's needs and then published, or build its own bespoke apps using Jadu's SDK with secure connections to its back office systems.

To date, the council has made eight apps from the ready-made palette, including an events calendar and an app notifying parents of school closures. By using jQuery mobile and HTML5, the apps can be accessed by any smartphone with a browser.

The council rolled out Weejot in four weeks for just under £2,000, with an additional annual running cost of £3,500.

"It was a very good solution for us without any capital investment in hardware and it meets the growing needs of our citizens, as we're finding that fewer and fewer of them are using fixed-line telephony. Research has shown interestingly enough that by 2014, more people will access the internet via a mobile device than from a desktop device," says Brown.

Software is not being universally used across the council, however. Last year South Lanarkshire looked at cloud provisioning of both software and hardware for an IT toolkit, based on Microsoft Project.

"Overall it was less expensive, as you just have the cost as long as you are continuing to use it, but we did have the occasional learning problems with it, in that it didn't always do what we expected it to do," says Brown. "We expected in some ways that it would respond slightly quicker if, for example, you needed more space, but that was maybe our naivety and it was early days."

As well as looking to the cloud, some councils are also exploring bring your own device. Recent research by Socitm indicated that there has been a change in attitude about local public service staff using their own technology to undertake business tasks - a trend Brown is witnessing.

"It's prevalent, and we're getting a lot of requests from people saying, 'I want to use an iPhone.' It's fine, you can use an iPhone, but you just can't use it on my [council] network," she says.

The reason for such a ban is that devices used for council work must be code of connection compliant with the GCSX network . The only devices that meet code of connection standards are BlackBerrys, "which isn't what everybody has, so there are some issues there", she adds.

Brown believes that in theory bring your own device is a great idea, but says the security risks need to be fully considered. To protect an organisation, "huge amounts" of money may need to be invested on firewall products to allow devices such as iPads and iPhones to be used over a local authority's network, she says.

Bring your own device also poses what could be a greater challenge for councils - as employers, they are expected to provide all of the material staff need to carry out their duties. "How can you force people, especially if they're low paid, to bring their own device?" she asks.

Bring your own device may be some years off for the council, but it has other means of generating efficiences in the meantime: the council has just completed its second deployment of a electronic document and records management system (EDRMS), which has "shown up substantial financial savings".

The council is also looking at how it can work on suggestions made in last year's McClelland review of ICT infrastructure in Scotland's public sector, like the majority of public services across the country. It also plans to continue looking at ways it can share its services where possible - it currently owns a datacentre, which is used by seven public sector organisations.

Despite the financial pressures facing local authorities across the UK, Brown says she is hopeful that these tough times will provide an opportunity for IT professionals to "step up to the mark" and deliver more business benefits for their organisations, whether that be through cloud, bring your own device, or alternative ways.

"We also have to learn to say no but nicely. Occasionally, we get asked to do things which are just stupid, and we just have to learn to say, 'No I don't really think that that's a good idea,'" she adds.

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