A hybrid approach to cloud

Mike Farrington, head of hybrid cloud

DWP’s cloud journey began around 5 years ago. For over 25 years, the department had outsourced its IT services to many different suppliers.

Head of hybrid cloud at DWP Digital, Mike Farrington explains: “Our first objective in our move to the cloud was to take control of our IT services and swiftly exit from the suppliers. This was the stepping stone to allow us to move to building cloud native services ourselves.

“With lots of ageing legacy systems to consider, we needed to take a hybrid approach to our cloud hosting.”

How do hybrid clouds work?

Hybrid cloud hosting uses a mixture of on-premise, private and public cloud services. A hybrid cloud approach gives the agility and ease of use of the cloud, but with the extra security and cost governance of on-premise hosting.

Mike says: “For DWP, the flexibility offered by a hybrid approach means we can build new services as cloud native applications – which we’ve done in the case of Universal Credit.

“But hybrid cloud also enables us to host legacy systems in an on-premise environment, where we purchase the hardware ourselves, and pay for the maintenance and data centre space. From there we can move them onto newer platforms in preparation for replacing as cloud native services.”

“As well as developing new services in public cloud, we use it as a space for sandpit development, so we truly benefit from not having to purchase hardware or data space.”

Cloud data centres and cost modelling

One of the key things to consider when using public cloud hosting is how you’ll make optimum use of services to maximise its value. Cloud hosting costs are coming down as cloud consumption increases across government, and cross-government agreements with suppliers are helping bring down those costs.

On-premise hosting has previously made more sense from a cost and security point of view, but that is definitely starting to change. DWP Digital’s approach to getting the best value from the cloud is by working closely with each of the product teams that develop our digital services.

Mike explains: “We have a dedicated financial operations team focused on cost optimisation of the cloud, working with product teams to understand exactly what they’re currently consuming. They look at the application uptime, the size of the application and the storage they use, and report on that every 2-3 weeks. This ensures they’re consuming what we pay for, and therefore getting the best value for the department overall.

“Moving forward, DWP Digital is looking at intelligent tooling to automate and report real-time on things that aren’t being used. The cost side is becoming more and more important and it is key for every organisation consuming public cloud to have a team that can make sure you get the best value for money.”

Cloud portability and cloud cost

Cloud portability is also a key way of avoiding cost increases from cloud hosting providers.

Mike says: “By setting up common shared services that actually work on-premise and across the multiple public cloud providers, we’re able to avoid vendor lock-in and the potential costs involved with that. This also ensures we’re able to move things around to maximise the value of our cloud investments and have the best fit for each of our applications.

“These common services allow our developers to work on-premise and to move code through the environments irrespective of the platform. We’ve previously used suppliers to help us build these services, but over the last 6-9 months we’ve reduced the reliance on that.

“We have our own DevOps teams and Site Reliability Engineers (SREs) working on developing and maintaining the environments that allow product teams to continue to work with new applications and develop existing applications.”

How secure is cloud storage?

As a government department, security is our number one consideration when it comes to cloud hosting.

Mike says: “A lot of our work is data-driven and it’s imperative that our data remains on-shore in the UK. When we first started taking control of our services, we put a lot of the things that hold aggregated data into discrete hyper-converged environments.

“As the main cloud providers increase their security controls, and put UK zones in place, we’re looking to move things from on-premise environments to consuming more cloud-based environments.”

Our response to Covid-19

When the Covid-19 pandemic struck earlier this year, the biggest impact for DWP was the increase in Universal Credit claims. Our hybrid cloud set-up was key to the efficiency of our response to the crisis.

Mike says: “Being hosted in the public cloud meant that we were able to easily scale up the service and meet the unprecedented demand for Universal Credit. We also had to scale up supporting systems for that including data and analytics and data lakes, which are in hyper cloud conversion on-premise and fairly easy to upscale.

“The hybrid cloud approach also enabled us to rapidly scale up our VPN capacity to support homeworking. There are now currently around 66,000 DWP colleagues working from home and accessing the VPN each day.”

How to implement a cloud hosting strategy

Although hybrid cloud hosting is working well in DWP, it isn’t always the right answer for an organisation. Mike’s advice is to analyse the workloads and understand when services need to be run, then find the most cost effective and secure solution to meet those needs.

A comprehensive cloud strategy which encompasses everything you need to support your organisation is key. In order to develop this, it’s important to fully understand your organisational goals and how a cloud approach could help achieve them.

This is particularly important in an organisation the size of DWP. But as Mike points out, “The size of an organisation doesn’t necessarily relate to the its complexity. Every organisation has its own politics and processes. To enable you to develop a cloud strategy, you need to consider the organisation’s goals and what you have in terms of tech estate and capability.

“You need to understand culturally what you want to do and make sure you’re not being driven by the technology. This goes back to understanding what you’re going to run in the cloud and when it needs to be running, as well as identifying things that are running on kit far higher performing than they need to be.”

The future of hybrid cloud in DWP Digital

Along with intelligent tooling for automation and reporting real-time, cost and value for money are becoming key priorities for our hybrid cloud team.

Mike concludes, “We’re a good way through our hybrid cloud journey in DWP Digital, and at a point where we’ve taken back control of almost all of our applications. By end of this year we’ll have complete control of everything.

“Over the next 12–18 months will be a big push to fine tune what we’ve got. It’s an exciting transformation to be part of.”

We’re currently recruiting digital specialists to join us on our journey. Check out our latest vacancies to find your career with DWP Digital.