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French public sector’s never-ending struggle with the cloud

The French government has more hurdles to overcome than many of its European neighbours when it comes to adopting cloud computing services

The French government is taking baby steps towards using cloud technology to store data and provide services. Yet, even with such a cautious approach, it is still likely to trip up.

That is because in France, there are three big obstacles standing between the government and cloud computing.

First, the decentralised nature of IT in the French government makes it virtually impossible to get all agencies to move in the same direction. Second, making the transition to cloud would cost more than the government has to spend. And third, it’s just not natural for the French government to create the nimble organisational structures required for private cloud services.

This has held the country back in cloud terms. According to a report by Max Claps and Sebastien Lamour at IDC, France has been slow to take the cloud into government.

Our analysis of government cloud computing adoption and investment plans across Western Europe shows that France is one of the most conservative among the largest EU member states, along with Germany,” the report says. “In fact, [our] survey of 275 government IT executives across Western Europe, carried out in the third quarter of 2015, revealed that French government respondents’ adoption of public cloud computing lagged behind Italy and Spain, Nordic countries and the UK, while adoption of private cloud computing is in line with other countries.”

There is no question that the French public sector could benefit from cloud technology. It could allow the government to consolidate its IT resources. Different government agencies currently have their own datacentres, and none of them are used at full capacity.

As cloud computing is perfectly suited to fluctuations in capacity, scaling up and down would be quick and easy.

It would also provide the flexibility required to implement new services more quickly. As government agencies develop new programmes, they could rapidly implement and deploy the  applications to support them.

Acknowledging this untapped opportunity, the French government last year released details of a two-pronged strategy to move data and services to the cloud.

External cloud

Under the strategy, government agencies may outsource non-critical data to an external cloud provided by Orange Business Services. But the only cloud services they can use in this context are infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) or a development environment in which government agencies can develop applications.

The second part of the strategy is a plan to develop a private cloud because all critical data must stay within the government. 

Pierre-José Billotte, president of EuroCloud France, said the government’s strategy is a very slow start. “For one thing, the outsourcing contract with Orange Business Services is only worth around €2m,” he said. “This is small change for Orange Business Services, so the company is not likely to make this project a priority.

“In addition, the private cloud has yet to be built – and that is not an easy thing to do. Building the private cloud will cost money and time.”

And there is another problem, said Billotte: “Different government agencies have their own independent IT departments that don’t take orders from the central government IT department, which can only co-ordinate and influence.

“So even once the private cloud is in place, if it doesn’t appear attractive to the different agencies, it will remain unused.”

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What is more, although rationalisation of IT resources could save costs in the long term, in the short term, using cloud will actually cost more. There will be a transition cost – the cost of moving data – and on top of that, there will be a period when government agencies continue to operate datacentres as they slowly transition to cloud computing. During this period, the government will be paying about twice as much.

Cyber security expert Gerome Billois from Wavestone said security is another expensive aspect of moving public sector data and applications to the cloud. “Where is the data stored? How can they protect themselves from having other governments spy on them?” he said.

“Is some government data being stored outside France? Of course. After all, the government has Twitter accounts and other social network accounts. It is no secret that much of that information winds up in the US.

“But the government classifies data based on the levels of trust needed to store it. None of the data on government social media accounts is in the critical category.”

Billois said government data has to be separated into different categories depending on security requirements – and the process of identifying and separating data costs money.

EuroCloud’s Billotte added: “The problem is that the government has no money to invest in the transition.”

Past problems

To put the government’s recent strategy into perspective, Billotte recalled how France has dabbled in cloud computing in the past. “The government made two attempts at providing cloud services guaranteeing 100% data storage in France,” he said.

“These two attempts took the form of two separate companies, Cloudwatt and Numergy, in which the public bank invested as a shareholder. The French government was not a direct shareholder; it was the public bank that had about a one-third stake – about €75m – in each company. Private companies put in the rest.

“Both projects failed. Why? The first reason is that neither company had the right mindset – a startup mindset. In both cases, the chairman was from a large company, so they didn’t have an innovation culture or vision.

“The second reason is that these companies provided something like a theoretical framework, not something market-driven.”

In trying to build a private cloud, France is likely to run into the same problems it encountered in the two sovereign cloud initiatives. Unless the government builds a private cloud that responds to the needs of the various government agencies – which constitute the market for the private cloud – France will end up with yet another unused government-sponsored cloud.

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