The goal of moving to cloud computing is core to almost every ICT strategy currently being drafted in the public sector.

However, for many organisations the journey to the cloud could be a long one, with the need to transform business processes and resolve significant challenges in embracing new agile commercial models.

Inherent security concerns around the use of a common shared infrastructure for multiple organisations are also a key barrier which needs to be overcome.

Whilst the Coalition ICT Strategy from March 2011 places cloud computing as a core priority, the G-Cloud programme has yet to deliver clear guidance on how public services should move to the cloud, leaving organisations to develop their own cloud roadmap and start an individual journey.

But if it is true that a common cloud infrastructure based upon common standards remains the future aspiration for public sector IT delivery, organisations have to get the foundations right first.

The first step, of course, is to virtualize the physical server estate. This is where public sector inertia feels most apparent.

Virtualization has a proven track-record, with Gartner quoting cost savings of up to 50%, in addition to enjoying increased flexibility, speed and improved quality of service. There are no official figures, but I'd estimate that average virtualization levels aren't much higher than 10% across the entire UK public sector.

While each individual organisations' exact cost savings vary, figures between 35% and 70% are not disputed. Across the public sector, there are real innovators who have achieved impressive results through virtualization; two fantastic examples are the London Borough of Hillingdon and the Liverpool Women's NHS Foundation Trust.

With the help of virtualization technology, Hillingdon is now 90 per cent virtualized and has built a successful private cloud.

As a result, it is spending 60 per cent less time on IT maintenance and administration, avoided £810,000 in new physical server investment and is saving £93,000 a year on energy bills.

Liverpool Women's has witnessed similar benefits, with £310,000 saved in IT over the past year alone is enjoying significantly improved system availability.

From my own experience working for the public sector, institutions including local authorities and healthcare organisations appear to be further advanced on the virtualization roadmap than many central government departments.

One explanation is that these organisations are driven by more extreme financial pressure then their central government counterparts, and they are not faced with the mammoth, multi-year IT outsourcing contracts that characterised Central Government IT.

Only last month, the Public Administration Select Committee report on Government and IT found that a widespread lack of IT skills in Government and an over-reliance on contracting has led to inefficient infrastructures, a large amount of waste and substantial over-payment for technology and services.

While many of the 2000+ public service organisations will have some basic level of virtualization in place, a lack of confidence and understanding often hinders them to push virtualization into the more critical business applications and take full advantage of what virtualization can offer.

This hesitancy is no longer justified. Liverpool Women's, for example, managed to virtualize 90 per cent of its IT estate within a year and now runs its mission-critical clinical applications on its virtualized platform, a far more reliable and stable infrastructure.

Whilst security concerns are often cited as a reason for hesitancy, these days being virtualized and secure is absolutely possible.

Hillingdon Council, for example, recently achieved Payment Card Industry (PCI) compliance and was able to show the auditors that security in a virtual environment was equal or even superior to that in a physical environment.

So, often it is the existing commercial model in the public sector that underlines the real reason for slow progress.

Many IT contracts are still charged on a per server basis, thus removing the incentive for suppliers to reduce the server count. Contracts of the future must encourage innovation, efficiency and enable application portability.

Virtualization technology is sufficiently mature today that the opportunity for infrastructure transformation has arrived, but while cloud is quite rightly the destination, the public sector will not get there without being bolder in taking the first steps and making business applications 'cloud ready' on today's in-house virtualized platforms.

Andy Tait, formerly deputy director, G-Cloud, apps store and data centre consolidation at the Cabinet Office, is head of public sector strategy at VMware

Pic: Tamworth Borough Council cc2.0