Are Australian providers ready for a government cloud?

The Australian government looks likely to move to the cloud this year, but are vendors ready for organisational and security requirements needed to run such a service?

One of the most prevalent predictions of 2013 is the emergence of a dedicated cloud infrastructure for government as the technical and commercial foundations are now in place for this to become a reality.

However, the viability of a government cloud will depend on whether cloud service providers can deliver secure, cost-effective and reliable platforms that meet the rigorous standards of the Australian public sector.

New cloud, new mindset

The development of a single cloud computing infrastructure for public sector use is by no means unprecedented. As it emerges, it’s likely that Australia’s government cloud will resemble similar developments overseas such as Britain’s “G-Cloud”, a national procurements framework aimed at delivering government-ready cloud services with the flexibility and speed of an e-commerce portal. Other countries to have announced plans for cloud adoption include the US, New Zealand, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Dedicated government cloud would deliver many of the efficiency dividends – or cost reductions achieved by doing more with existing resources –that already drive policy within most arms of government. The Cloud Computing Strategic Direction Paper, developed by the Department of Finance and Deregulation in 2011, identified value for money, flexibility and operational reliability as the three key drivers of cloud across all government departments and agencies. Ongoing iterations of a cloud implementation framework for government have made significant progress since a year ago.

2013 will be the first year where we have the technical architecture to support development of a dedicated government cloud, particularly as a result of policy moves like the Government’sLead Agency Gateway (LAG) program and the continued rollout of the National Broadband Network (NBN). The LAG program means that for the first time, Australian Government departments will be consolidating their internet connections down from 124 to just 8.

This provides a small number of perfect locations in which to place cloud infrastructure; prior to this program, to achieve the same outcome, you would have potentially had to have over 100 different cloud platforms.  The NBN rollout drives online and internet usage, and will directly encourage departments to deliver their services not just “online”, but also in more creative and data rich forms like video and apps. This in turn requires more computing and storage that can be more efficiently delivered via a dedicated government cloud.

Some Australian public sector leaders still harbour concerns about the security and reliability of cloud computing. However, most have taken positive first steps into cloud which support the change in mindset towards a private government cloud being inherently more secure and reliable than doing a more costly in-house deployment.  Stronger public sector leadership will further assist overcoming in-house inertia.

As in the UK, overcoming these concerns is essential for Australian cloud service providers to tap into the vast business opportunities that the public sector has to offer. Doing so will determine not only the government cloud’s success, but the openness to technological innovation in the public sector for years to come.

Security, efficiency, reliability

According to Defence Minister Stephen Smith, the number of serious cyber-security incidents in Australia rose year-on-year by more than 52 per cent in the first 9 months of 2012. Last year also saw numerous companies suffer significant losses to revenue and reputation as a result of service outages, which ranged from a Telstra exchange fire that affected more than 60,000 customers to service failures at popular web hosting provider GoDaddy for which hacktivist group Anonymous claimed responsibility. For a government cloud to succeed, departments and agencies need to be confident that it offers them secure, efficient and reliable improvements on the status quo.

Cloud service providers, or CSPs, have several opportunities to reverse public sector concerns around cloud adoption. In the area of cyber-security, providers with strong certification credentials and expertise will be the first choices for government agencies, particularly those who deal with large amounts of sensitive citizen data.

Meeting government cyber-security requirements requires significant investment on the part of CSPs. For instance, Macquarie Telecom is investing $14m in building Intellicentre 4, a Canberra-based data centre which will provide government agencies with a highly secure “bunker” for hosting that aims to meet or exceed the toughest cyber-security standards from ASIO and the Defence Signals Directorate. Similar industry-wide investments will be necessary for government cloud computing to overcome current reservations about security, and reach critical mass in the near future.

Government cloud will also require highly resilient cloud services to be the norm, not the exception. The number of data centres actually certified for resilient service in Australia still remains low – despite many providers claiming to meet the requisite standards. For the public sector to invest in cloud computing, CSPs will need to aim for and achieve high-level uptime certification on par with (or greater than) their counterparts in other countries like the US and the UK.

Over the horizon

As government cloud proves successful, departments and agencies will be endowed with unprecedented flexibility in their IT procurement and deployment strategies. Moreover, the long-term productivity benefits of cloud computing for the Australian economy – up to $3 billion a year, according to analysis from KPMG in mid-2012 – will only be fully realised if government organisations set the standard for business and industry through their own use of the technology.

By developing infrastructure and services that directly address government requirements, cloud service providers will also be better equipped to meet growing demand from business for increased security and resilience. This investment is essential for Australia to establish itself as a cloud-first economy in government policy, technical implementation and business benefits.

Aidan Tudehope is Macquarie Telecom's managing director of hosting business. 

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