The Stack Archive

Richard Corbridge: NIHR Clinical Research Network’s journey to the cloud – Don’t believe the hype… or should we?

Tue 16 Sep 2014

corbridge_headIn the first of a series of episodes following the cloud migration of the National Institute for Health Research’s (NIHR) Clinical Research Network CIO Richard Corbridge introduces the group’s decision to adopt a cloud computing strategy, and why they gave in to the ‘hype.’

The organisation I am the CIO for has been running strategic systems on its own virtual private cloud for the last three years. The organisation is tasked with supporting the NHS to deliver clinical research for the benefit of patients throughout the NHS. To do this there are around 10,000 funded NHS staff who need to access the solution set we deploy to ensure clinical research is delivered to a high quality and within an agreed time frame for NHS, Academic and Commercial research all over the globe.

The current strategic infrastructure is a large(ish), some would joke too big, set of solutions deployed largely on an Oracle infrastructure, not a cloud. Even Larry Ellison in 2011, commented that, ‘Maybe I’m an idiot, but I have no idea what anyone is talking about. What is it?’ Cloud, he put forward at that point in time, is the new black! And so in 2011 we carried on not wearing black!

So, to believe the hype or not? In the words of Chuck D, ‘Don’t believe the hype!’ This was the advice given to our organisation three years ago as we started to plan for a new major system procurement and release. We could ‘easily’ re-name our strategic infrastructure as our own virtual private cloud and gain all the benefits with none of the grief around security and governance, we were told. But that was the wrong answer. It would be too hard, and we agreed at that point in time, so we continued on our somewhat ‘fake’ cloud.

Virtualise, virtualise, virtualise! This was the new way forward for us. Of course that also meant that our footprint of environments grew to one bigger than NASA’s as the development function of the organisation found it easier to simply spin up another ‘server’ whilst not really keeping an eye on the end cost or indeed considering the process for retiring the virtualised environments thoroughly.

And then, as we moved to the middle of 2013, a realisation dawned upon the organisations we work within. ‘Cloud First’ should and can be adopted, and with care and consideration for governance it will deliver significant benefits to our organisation. The perceived risks of a government agency moving to cloud could be mitigated, and not just with financial savings at the centre of the reasoning and benefits.

But technology strides forward and the new black came to our organisation. In 2014, we migrated all of our operational services to the cloud. We now benefit from the integration and interoperability that the Google solution set offers us for email, documentation and almost all facets of operational collaboration and in the last quarter of 2014 and into 2015, we begin a journey that will see all of our strategic systems also migrated to a cloud solution through a partnership put in place with PA Consulting.

However, there is no cookie cutter definition to the cloud. The language of the technologists is getting in the way: utilities talk of the grid and technologists talk of the cloud, no matter the industry vertical. So the first thing we have to do is flatten the language or at least build an understanding across 10,000 researchers of what benefits the cloud brings. Cloud is an enabler for driving business strategy; the ‘internet of things’ is now central to any strategy in 2014. Every new strategy document has a pretty cloud drawing in the middle and I can only assume that Google Images must have clouds in its top ten downloaded pictures! But security, and the perception of it, is one of the key disruptors for its implementation, positive and negative. Cloud puts more of the security to the user – not just the password but encryption and federated access controls. So, cloud is scary with regard to security, but, if done right, it brings security benefits.

Before migrating to the cloud, some hard work has to be done: process, governance, data cleansing. Cloud does deliver benefits against the five watch words:

1 – Simplify
2 – Economic
3 – Agile
4 – Innovation
5 – Security

But, as with any technology implementation, if not done right cloud can harm each of the impacts of these words just as easily, removing the benefits and making the business of the organisation more difficult to undertake.

Microsoft believes that 18% of UK Public Sector Organisations have cloud platforms of some sort. This makes the UK Public Sector the largest server outsourcing market in the world, a market place we could describe as quite ‘cloudy’ and therefore adoption of cloud should be an easier task than many would think, it’s certainly not a blank piece of paper to build from.

So throughout this journey I will be reporting back on the progress we make, the lessons we learn and the benefits we gain to help others make the leap into the cloud. In the coming months there will be episodes on The Stack about our journey to the Stratocumulus.

In the next episode, Stratus – Low Clouds, I will be looking at the starting point for the project, how the decision came about, and the first steps we plan on taking.


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