Cloudy days for Sunshine State

Privacy fears stall cloud computing for government

Australia could be the cloud computing hub of the Asia Pacific within the next 20 years, according to top government CIOs and industry experts.

Sensitive data from governments and businesses within the Asia Pacific will reside in a series of high-tech, zero-carbon data centres spread through Australia's capital cities, and linked into hubs across the region, including servers deployed on disused oil rigs in international waters.

The scenario is one of ways the federal government may use cloud computing, according to Queensland government acting CIO Allan Chapman, Brisbane City Council CIO Tony Welsh, former CIO of Queensland health and transport Paul Summergreene and local Microsoft CTO Greg Stone, who participated in a hypothetical discussion on the impacts and use of the technology.

Depending on who you ask, cloud computing is either the next big thing in IT services or just another amorphous label tagged onto what is a 20 year evolution of the ideals of utility computing.

Pundits agree, however, that the technology's promise to take the burden of backend processing, data and application services away from government and business and hand it to companies like Microsoft, Amazon and Google will revolutionise the IT industry.

The Brisbane forum — dubbed 'Government with it's head in the cloud' — invited participants to discuss the appropriateness of sending government data into the cloud in a nation fiercely protective of its privacy.

Australia's cloud, coined by participants, has bounced around senior QLD government offices in 'academic' discussions, which considered the ramifications of a cloud bound by national borders to one allowed to drift between international data centres.

While Chapman would not speculate on how long the government may take to send data into a cloud that breaches international borders, he said the technology could be used in minute amounts inside three years. Such usage may focus on 'vanilla transactions' which are void of sensitive data, while wider government adoption of cloud computing will take between 15 and 20 years due to privacy concerns.

The government will develop standards and application roadmaps in about 10 years, according to Summergreene, depending on the adoption of cloud computing in the private sector.

Others, such as National ICT Australia (NICTA) principal scientist Dr Renato Iannella, predict the government will take 'bite-sized chunks' of cloud computing, and watch industry experiences.

Sun shines above the clouds

The unmatched economy of scale that the cloud computing concept offers is seen by some as the panacea for IT shops feeling the global economic pinch. A cautious Chapman said the cloud offers governments better economies of scale, higher utilisation and promises to alleviate some pressure of skills shortages.

Reason has it that government departments stand to benefit the most during the economic pinch as they are forced from the top to rationalise IT spend. Microsoft's Speares said organisations could send up to 90 percent of its 'generic processing' into the cloud and retain the remainder in-house.

"The cloud allows you to handle multiple scenarios with more flexibility because it breaks functionality in chunks spread across the cloud," Stone said.

NICTA is developing a new privacy policy technology, dubbed the Privacy-Orientated Web, which will link access rights management to online content. Dr Iannella said the policy language has to be flexible enough to reflect changing law.

"It has a language that can model the basics of privacy and rights management with future changes," Dr Iannella said.

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Traversing the storm

"Security and privacy are the big issues because you don't know where your data is held," Chapman said, noting the concerns aren't limited to the likes of China and India. Data would be open for snooping under the United States Patriot Act, he said, which would rule out an American cloud.

Panellists spoke of similar political issues under the Asia Pacific hub cloud model where data from foreign countries would be held in Australian data centres. "Do we hand over data from our clouds to a new government requesting information on a company in their country?" Stone said.

Australian Computer Society vice president Mark Llyod said the government uptake of the cloud is contingent on the success of the technology in the private sector.

"Cloud computing raises many geo-political issues that need answers before governments, which hold information under public trust, will venture forth," Llyod said.

"What if a government froze foreign assets, including cloud infrastructure, or denied access over some international dispute? If knowledge is power, how can a nation guarantee that data stored in the cloud is not used by foreign powers to gain commercial or political advantage? How can a nation protect the public interest if its laws are subjugated to international rules of engagement?"

He said the government would be wise to delay deployment of the technolgy because it may not have the necessary acumen to invest in cloud services.

"If the media is used as a guide, the governments of Australia are still making spectacular mistakes in procurement and project delivery, so only the brave or stupid in government will venture down this path in the near future."

Pressing questions remain about data ownership in the cloud, Stone said, including where the information resides and what elements are allowed to leave the organisation or migrate offshore.

"You need to start addressing the issues of data sovereignty, protection and so forth. Government and industry needs to engage in dialogue because there are sub-problems because data can be very sensitive or quite benign."

Stone said IT will naturally evolve into the cloud. However, it will run into problems without adequate dialogue.

Government agencies will need guaranteed Service Level Agreements (SLAs) before sending public data into the cloud. Brisbane City Council ICT partnerships manager Idramore Cudamore said the decentralised nature of cloud computing makes enforcing SLAs difficult.

Stone said cloud computing uses different SLAs because the data centres have a unique stack architecture.

"Its not the same stack. The servers don't have fans in them, the blade setup is totally different [as is] the bus configuration, hypervisor and management. The type of approach is different from traditional hosting," Stone said.

He said it is too early to dictate what software licensing models will dominate in the cloud, but suggested a per-user or pay-per-click will be more suitable than the per-device structure.

However, Dr Iannella said the customer victory which banished man of the 'ludicrous' licence models created almost a decade ago during the Digital Rights Management shift will resonate in the cloud computing models. He said licence models will be reinvented to suit the flexibility of the cloud.

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Slow change heralds cloudy weather

Policy and legislation are the ball and chain behind the government's adoption of cloud computing, according to Summergreene, who oversaw the development of Queensland's $1.2 billion a year Transport Registration and Integrated Licensing System (TRAILS) system.

"The IT is the easy part; I am more concerned about policy and legislation and business rules. It requires good consistent governance and an understanding of the total costs, including the cost of change," Summergreene said. He said applications could be made available to all areas of government by a mix of software-as-a-service and cloud computing.

The number of applications within government must be cut back before the cloud becomes viable for the public sector. "We've got every version of every platform under the sun somewhere in government," Chapman said. "It's a big task to get just he applications we need on one platform."

While panellists agreed that international bandwidth links will improve despite Australia's isolation, they said an APAC cloud would need to rely on local data centres. Chapman said traffic would be reduced on international links if an Australian cloud operated on three or four large data centres inside the country.

However, a cloud network fenced-off by national boundaries "goes against the principles" of the technology, according to Dr Iannella. "You need to let the cloud go out if you want to offer the best price," he said. "But then you have the issues of privacy and security which could kill [the cloud]."

Standards will have to be ironed out by the federal government to avoid proprietary lock-in, according to Summergreene, before the cloud will take off. But the process will be slow, Dr Iannella said, because the creation of standards can take up to 10 years.

Heating, cooling and processing technology will need to become more green before the huge data centres — which Stone said may hold up to 300,000 servers each — can be built to support

Planting trees to offset carbon was deemed unsustainable by some panellists, while others suggested the data centres should be built inland or offshore where sunlight, sea water and wind can be used as natural sources power and cooling.

Panellists spoke at an event hosted by Invest Brisbane and Longhaus.