A cloud thrust before cloud-first!

Private-only clouds could be limiting and even economically unviable for the government; a measured leverage of public and hybrid clouds is the way to go


Shubhendu Parth | December 29, 2015

By Deepak Kumar & Shubhendu Parth

The cloud has the potential to transform the way the government functions internally or provides services externally, to citizens. It brings in the agility and flexibility to become more responsive to needs of both citizens and businesses. The paradigm completely shifts from asset ownership to using managed services that are linked to evolving technologies and not tied down to legacy ones.

There are a variety of ways in which government can leverage cloud. For organisations that are just looking at retiring, replacing or augmenting their hardware infrastructure, they can start leveraging infrastructure as a service (IaaS). For those focused on application and software infrastructure, platform as a service (PaaS) and software as a service (SaaS) would be options to consider. Departments and state governments could also use cloud as an extension to their existing data centre assets, particularly for launching new services or augmenting existing services quickly. Depending on the context, some of these services could also be sourced from public clouds. However, concerns related to data privacy, security and sovereignty need to be addressed. 

That brings us to the question: how does one figure out if a certain piece of information and communication technology (ICT) in the government would qualify for delivery over a public cloud or not? Also, does that view change over a period of time?

Obviously, the voices and views of government officials and decision makers must be a determining factor. So Governance Now, along with its research partner B&M Nxt, reached out to officials across the central and state governments through a purpose-built survey and consolidated their responses as a means to quantify the cloud adoption and usage trends in government offices. We also invited qualitative inputs from some key experts in the government. All survey responses, as represented in the graphs, have been consolidated to show adoption levels in the government on an overall basis and not by any individual departments or organisations.
Digital India and cloud

The Digital India programme is expected to bring about a transformative difference in the way governments interacts with citizens or respond to them and also in the way internal processes in the government are carried out.

Interview: Vinit Goenka, Member Taskforce – Ministry of Shipping, Road Transport & Highways 

Cloud-enablement of ICT software, platforms and infrastructure is an important first step in the direction of digitising the government. When combined with the power of mobility, an area where India has already made unprecedented progress, cloud makes anywhere anytime access to information a reality. It not only accelerates the time-to-delivery of government-to-citizen services but also ensures that all different services are using a common and updated view of data from a central pool residing on the cloud.

Experts in the government as well as in the industry are of the view that cloud has the potential to enable the very core of the Digital India programme – the goals of providing digital infrastructure as a core utility to citizens; governance and services on demand, and digital empowerment of citizens.

Jayesh Ranjan, secretary, IT, electronics and communications, Telangana, is very much optimistic. “The Digital India programme will improve the demand for ICT. The cloud will certainly reduce the upfront IT costs and capital expenditure. It will facilitate dynamic provisioning of infrastructure on the fly,” he notes.

“Cloud may be used for seamless integration between various departments and with citizens. It may provide a centralised data storage facility that will help in dissemination of information at a much faster pace. The DigiLocker is a perfect example of a cloud service launched by the Indian government to provide its citizens with a shareable cloud space to store and share documents such as certificates, PAN card and voter ID,” Shatrujeet Singh Kapoor, additional director general (ADG), CID, Haryana police, emphasises.

Upender Jit Singh, managing director, Webel – the nodal agency for the state of West Bengal, adds, “Cloud computing provides a new service consumption and delivery model predicated on low capex and pay-per-use paradigm. E-governance applications can be hosted on a cloud in a very cost-effective manner. E-governance with cloud computing offers integration management with automated problem resolution, manages security end to end, and helps budget based on actual usage.”

Interview: AM Parial, Vice Chairman, CHiPS

Neeraj Gill, group director – public sector at Microsoft, which has been much in news recently after it became the first among the big three cloud providers globally to set up local cloud data centres, is also upbeat. “Cloud can provide a sharable yet secure private space and a digital identity to every citizen; help launch real time and single-window services that are accessible from anywhere, anytime and on any device, and digitally empower citizens to work in a participative manner with the government,” he notes.

Also, as N Ravichandar, head of emerging technologies with HCL Infosystems, points out, “Cloud will boost industries in a way which is unimaginable, with cloud computing infrastructure which will augment human intelligence, cloud is sure to act as a great tool and catalyst for India’s digital growth.”

From a network standpoint, the ability to adapt to changing traffic patterns is extremely important and the cloud architecture really makes that possible, opines Shibu Paul, regional sales director – India, ME and SEA at Array Networks. “While the cloud can be used for a steady-state environment, it really shines when used for dynamic scenarios, aided by the power of monitoring and API integration. There are also advantages like the service-oriented architecture that could play a very vital role for e-governance platforms on cloud,” he says.
It all begins with productivity applications

Indeed. What could be a better way to introduce ICT users in the government to cloud than to move applications like e-mail, spreadsheets and word processors to the cloud! As we know, cloud is both an enabler and catalyst of digitisation, and as the survey respondents tend to agree that a seamless adoption and usage of cloud in government offices would be a fundamental stepping stone in the journey.

Email and office productivity applications are considered the safest bet when it comes to starting a public cloud journey for the government. Close to 68 percent respondents in the Governance Now-B&M Nxt survey said they would consider moving one or more office productivity applications to the cloud. Importantly, around 96 percent respondents considered that by moving these applications to cloud, governments could increase their productivity by a modest to highly significant measure.

However, there are a number of inhibitors in the adoption of cloud, which must be overcome if the larger goals such as the Digital India programme are to be successfully achieved. As the survey reveals, the key inhibitors include lack of user awareness and concerns around security and compliance. Around 23 percent of the respondents say lack of awareness was a key deterrent to adoption of cloud in the government, second only to security (29 percent). Lack of good connectivity in some states and cities and insufficient bandwidth are among other concerns that tend to slow down the uptake of cloud.

“Out of all these inhibitors, I think that security and data sovereignty need to be addressed on a priority basis. Government has an onus to protect citizen data and ensure availability of critical infrastructure such as power, water, health, communications, and banking. This might not relate to only data owned by government but those entrusted to it by others,” says Kapoor.

However, these concerns may sometimes be unfounded and could largely be due to perception issues. Ranjan makes no bones about bringing this to the fore, “There is a common belief that on-premise data centres would offer more security than cloud. Actually it is the other way around. Among other things, dependence on legacy systems and interoperability are also key inhibitors.”

Nevertheless, experts are of the view that from a long-term perspective, these issues would be mitigated and the adoption of cloud in the government will rise. Again, use of cloud in day-to-day office productivity applications would expectedly help significantly increase the awareness and comfort levels of users and even allay concerns pertaining to adoption of cloud for a more broad-based delivery of IT across the government.
Getting the concerns addressed

Close to 74 percent of the respondents said their concerns around security and compliance with regard to public clouds would get addressed if the corresponding data centres were to be located within the country. Even more importantly, more than 63 percent said they would consider deploying cloud-based office productivity applications within 12 months after they were made available through in-country data centres. It is worth noting here that much of the compliance-related concerns in particular pertain to where the data resides on the servers.

Vinit Goenka, member taskforce –ministry of shipping, road transport and highways, feels keeping data centres within our reach would only help in making the whole ecosystem transparent, secured and independent of any external leakages. However, he cautions, “While it may assuage concerns arising out of jurisdiction of laws when data is at rest, it still doesn’t guarantee complete protection when data is in motion. Sensitive data should be locally stored, but provisions should also be made to ensure data originating from India and with a destination address in India should not pass through gateways and servers located outside India.”

Experts nevertheless advocate a judicious use of the public and hybrid clouds. AM Parial, vice chairman, Chhattisgarh Infotech & Biotech Promotion Society (CHiPS), notes, “The service quality of public cloud services are improving rapidly. Government organisations and departments are finding that such cloud offerings may soon meet necessary compliance, security and service-level needs of the respective government. It is better to invest in effective usage and governance of public cloud services than investing in duplicating a public cloud architecture on-premise – especially when the public cloud providers are investing far more in innovation and continually lowering costs.”

Rajendra Pratap Gupta, a public policy expert who has been involved with drafting some of the recent policy documents for the government of India, draws specific attention to use of cloud in the area of public healthcare. “The public healthcare cloud infrastructure should be hosted within the country with the oversight of the dedicated organisation such as National E-Health Authority (NeHA) to manage the cloud infrastructure and ensure adoption of standards and regulatory compliance. The concerns around security and compliance can be easily overcome with right controls, security measures and adoption of standards,” he says.

Governance Now is of the view that localisation of the cloud data centres would also lead to greater awareness around cloud and its benefits across the government organisations, largely because the providers would be able to work more closely with the potential users to the effect. Sometimes, it is also a case of using a technology despite not being conscious of it by a specific name per se. Web-based emails services are one classic case. While most of the ICT users in the government, as elsewhere, have been consuming these services for personal usage, not everybody realises these are just another instance of the cloud. Regular and targeted communication exercises by cloud providers, aimed at disseminating information around cloud services, could be immediately effective with these fringe users.
Mobility and cloud go hand in hand

Mobility is widely considered as strongly complementary to cloud and vice versa. In India, the rapidly rising adoption of smartphones is making that relationship all the more meaningful from a long-term perspective. However, at present, very few users are using their mobile devices to access cloud-based office productivity applications.

In the survey, more than 43 percent respondents reported usage of a smartphone or tablet by up to 75 percent of the users in their respective offices. Close to 49 percent respondents said the access of cloud-based email over these mobile devices was below 25 percent. The access of cloud-based office productivity applications was even lower, with 64 percent of respondents noting it as below 25 percent.
Nevertheless, the high – and growing – incidence of smartphones among users in government offices is indicative of a burgeoning potential. A rise in user awareness and allaying of security and compliance concerns would help accelerate the adoption.
How about a cloud-first policy?

Some of the early mover countries, like the US, UK and Australia, have already adopted a cloud-first policy, even though none of them have launched a transformation programme of the scale of Digital India yet.

Better late than never, the cloud proponents seem to say, given that cloud-first policies are understood to help governments in bringing their respective cloud programmes up to speed. These policies bring clarity of purpose and direction to government agencies and organisations when they consider an IT deployment, by way of mandating that cloud should be considered as the first option whenever there is a requirement.

Interview: Rajendra Pratap Gupta, Public Policy Expert

With the GI Cloud aka Meghraj initiative already in place, would cloud-enabling of state data centres (SDCs) be the next step in the direction of a cloud-first scenario? Ranjan of Telangana state is of the view that this indeed is the way to go. “It is high time to make data centres cloud ready. There are many e-governance initiatives and in order to cater to all these needs the SDCs have to scale up, and cloud is the only way out. The government would like to build a private cloud in SDC to cater to its own needs, as private clouds offer more security and control, and also build more data centres connected to the cloud. When multiple data centres are connected in cloud we can mitigate DDoS, security risks and vulnerabilities,” he says.

Further, “If security of government data can be properly managed, going with the hybrid and public cloud will be helpful. The SDC with merger of hybrid and public clouds can be opened for IaaS, PaaS or SaaS,” Ranjan adds.

Kapoor of Haryana police agrees, “The time has come for the police departments across the country to start bringing cloud-computing as a component during planning the ICT and mobility systems. Even the migration of existing systems in certain cases such as where the data centre infrastructure is on verge of becoming obsolete or the maintenance is becoming costly or unfeasible.”

On the security concerns around use of public clouds in government, the industry seems to have covered more ground than what is generally considered. Gill of Microsoft outlines the measures undertaken, “Security in the cloud is an end-to-end story. The core tenets of our approach to earning and maintaining the trust are built around four key principles namely, built-in security, privacy by design, continuous compliance and transparent operations. Our hyper-scale public cloud services are designed to address concerns not only in the government but also in highly-regulated sectors such as BFSI and healthcare.”

“Various government and private organisations should make it a priority to shift to cloud-hosted models, as the redundancy rate reduces multi-fold and the cost in the long run is substantially low,” Ravichandar of HCL adds.

The government is already understood to be working on the cloud policy, and a key measure of its success would lie in its ability to leverage the best-in-class platforms and services both from both public and government domains. This would not only give India jump-start abilities to progress in the digital era but also help increase the competitiveness of the country as a whole in the global economic arena.

In this context, liberal yet judicious creation of hybrid mechanisms that make the most of captive assets such as cloud-enabled SDCs as well as public cloud platforms would be a smart way forward. Migration of office productivity applications to cloud would be just a means towards that end. 
Kumar is founder analyst at B&M Nxt. Parth is deputy editor with Governance Now. 
(The article appears in the December 16-31, 2015 issue)



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