SDN: a not-so-secret ingredient for transforming government services
An early draft of the Government Digital Transformation Strategy shows that, for the Government Digital Service (GDS) at least, it remains a priority to create services that cut across organisational boundaries.
When shared services work, the benefits are obvious. According to the Local Government Association, local government shared services have contributed to taxpayers saving more than half a billion pounds. But it’s also not hard to find examples of shared services failing to deliver. The recently published National Audit Office report on the government’s two shared service centres shows they have so far not delivered value for money.
What makes the difference between success and failure? There is broad agreement that leadership, governance and user buy-in are all critical – easy to say, not so easy to achieve, of course. And then there’s the approach to ICT.
EVOLUTION NOT REVOLUTION
“A problem we often see is organisations embarking on massive ICT programmes that try to change everything all at once,” says Simon Parry, chief technology officer for the UK public sector at Ciena, a global network strategy and technology company. “This can take years to deliver any kind of return on investment and by then what they’ve delivered is quite possibly out of date.”
Citing software-defined networking (SDN), he says: “Today there are better ways to deliver ICT change programmes. With the right SDN solution, you can evolve existing infrastructures, relatively quickly and cost effectively, to support new strategies such as shared services. Importantly, you can interconnect separate legacy networks and manage them as a single network, without any significant change to the underlying infrastructures.”
Having to integrate networks with different, closed architectures has been a serious obstacle to the efficient delivery of shared services in the past. By simplifying network interconnectivity, SDN can allow government to simplify the development of shared services, while fully exploiting existing networks. Further improvements, from network optimisation to automated end-to-end orchestration, can then follow in stages, as part of ongoing “retire, replace, reform” strategies.
HOPES AND HAZARDS
This evolutionary story is a big part of SDN’s appeal for government organisations under pressure to do more with less.
You can evolve existing infrastructures to support new strategies such as shared services
“We know that organisations as diverse as GDS, Transport for London (TfL) and Jisc, [which provides digital support for UK education and research], are starting to explore the potential of SDN,” says Mr Parry.
This is because SDN has so many potential use-cases in government. It can help a council cut through some of the politics holding back shared-service development by letting them reformulate a project as a proof of concept, using existing infrastructure to trial some new software – a small step that is much easier to get buy-in for.
But in these early days for SDN, there are a multitude of different offerings and standards, not to mention hype.
“We advise organisations not to get tied into multi-year contracts,” says Mr Parry, “and to choose an SDN solution that is genuinely agnostic regarding hardware, protocols and architectures, because not all are. It should have published, open interfaces and toolkits, which not all do. This would enable you to choose any contractor for specific integrations, software development or ongoing network development. Or, indeed, do any of this in-house.”