Cloud computing in government?

Business on a laptop Enterprise Minister Richard Bruton has established a cross-government implementation taskforce on cloud computing.

The new Government has highlighted the economic benefits of Ireland embracing cloud computing technology since it came into office. Cloud computing, which permits individuals or organisations to have computer data stored, backed-up and secured remotely, was highlighted in its Programme for Government, with a commitment to make Ireland a leader in the emerging IT market of cloud computing “by promoting greater use of cloud computing in the public sector,” and “organising existing State supports for cloud computing into a package to promote Ireland as a progressive place for IT investment.” It committed to establishing an expert group to address security and privacy issues arising from the technology and identifying what was needed to ensure a supportive regulatory environment.

At the end of June, Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Richard Bruton, announced the establishment of the cross-departmental taskforce on cloud computing. In the speech announcing he had written to government colleagues about the taskforce, the Minister said that while cloud computing held great economic potential for Ireland “it is also crucial that government, as a major user of IT in the economy, take a lead in this area in order to provide opportunities and economies of scale for growing businesses in this sector.”

The taskforce, which is chaired by the Secretary General of Bruton’s department, Seán Gorman, includes representatives from his department and its main agencies (IDA, Enterprise Ireland, Science Foundation Ireland, Forfás), the Data Protection Commissioner’s Office,

the Department of Justice and Equality, the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Other representatives including industry will attend as appropriate. A parallel consultation process with industry will be conducted through ICT Ireland.

An enterprise department spokeswoman told eolas that the taskforce’s first meeting took place on 20 July and it is scheduled to meet again in the second week of September. She said it is hoped the group will conclude its work by the end of the year.

Proponents of cloud computing say it has many benefits. It can substantially reduce costs, ensure greater server and energy efficiency (thereby reducing carbon footprint) and the re-use of computer applications. Many new applications can be virtualised. Both the consumer and provider save on the need for less hardware and electricity. Users of cloud computing have increased mobility in terms of accessing data (not restricted to accessing data at one computer), which can also be stored at an increased capacity.

Cloud computing has being embraced by the UK Government. At a conference on the issue in Dublin in June, a British expert, Andy Tait, who previously worked as Deputy Director of the G-Cloud Programme in the UK Cabinet Office, said that the potential benefit there was a 30 per cent reduction in annual costs (the private sector would achieve 60 per cent savings). He said there were 90,000 servers within central government in Britain running at less than 10 per cent utilisation.

Dangers with the use of cloud computing technology have also been documented. In the case of the public sector, there are issues surrounding data protection and possible exposure of data to privacy breaches. In a previous issue (see page 54 and 55, issue 3), Tim Duggan, Director of the Centre for Management and Organisation Development (now in the new Department of Public Expenditure and Reform), told eolas that while the public sector in Ireland has been using cloud computing on a private government network (accessible only to public bodies) there are several barriers to putting information onto a public cloud.

Data protection laws prohibit putting personal data on the internet. Storing public data in another jurisdiction runs significant risks, including the ability in some countries for governments to seize data. Cloud providers run the risk of cyber-attacks or unreliability. Data storage in computer storage warehouses or ‘containers’ runs the risk of vendor lock- in, where the public service might be at the mercy of price increases, or prohibitive costs if the decision was made to transfer data to another provider.

Over the summer, media reports stated that there are differences of opinion within the public sector on cloud computing, with some embracing it and its economic potential for Ireland, and others opposed

in principle to using cloud computing solutions for the public sector.

The establishment of a taskforce follows a Microsoft-commissioned report published in January this year which estimated that the cloud computing sector could provide 8,600 in Ireland with employment (in March 2010 the CSO stated there were 40,600 employed in ICT services and 24,700 employed in the manufacture of computer, electronic and optical products) and could be worth €9.6 billion to the economy (total ICT sales in 2008 were estimated to be approximately €50 billion). The report recommended organising publicly-funded agencies into a cloud cluster programme and closing gaps in awareness of cloud computing.

A 2009 government-commissioned report, ‘Technology actions to support the knowledge economy’, estimated that a minimum of 10,000 high value jobs based on advanced data (cloud computing) centres will be created over the next five to 10 years.

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