Late last week a seemingly comprehensive takedown Amazon, titled “Amazon’s extraordinary grip on British data“, appeared in the Telegraph, written by Harry de Quetteville.
Read quickly it would suggest that Amazon, through perhaps fair and foul means, has secured too great a share of UK Government’s cloud business and that this poses an increasingly systemic risk to digital services and, inevitably, to consumer data.
Read more slowly, the article brings together some old allegations and some truths and joins them together so as get to the point where I ask “ok, so what do you want to do about it”, but it doesn’t suggest any particular action. That’s not to be said that there’s no need for action, just that this isn’t the place to find the argument.
The main points of the Telegraph’s case are seemingly based on “figures leaked” (as far as I know, all of this data is public) to the newspaper:
- Amazon doesn’t pay tax (figures from 2018 are quoted showing it paid £10m euros on £1.9bn revenues, using offshore (Luxembourg) vehicles. For comparison, the article says, AWS apparently sold £15m of cloud services to HMRC.
- There is a “revolving door” where senior civil servants move to work for Amazon “within months of overseeing government cloud contracts.” Three people are referenced, Liam Maxwell (former Government deputy CIO and CTO), Norman Driskell (Home Office CDO) and Alex Holmes (DD Cyber at DCMS).
- Amazon lowballs prices which then spiral … and “even become a bar to medical research.” This is backed up by a beautifully done Amazon smile that says DCLG signed a contract in 2017 estimated at £959,593 that turned out to cost £2,611,563 (an uplift of 172%)
- There is a government bias towards AWS giving it “an unfair competitive advantage that has deprived British companies of contracts and cost job[s].“
- A neat infographic says “1/3 of government information is stored on AWS (including sensitive biometric details and tax records); 80% of cloud contracts are “won by large firms like AWS”
- Amazon’s “leading position with … departments like the Home Office, DWP, Cabinet Office, NHS Digital and the NCA is also entrenched.“
- “Figures obtained by the Sunday Telegraph suggest that AWS has captured more than a third of the UK public sector market with revenues of more than £100m in the last financial year.“
Let’s start by setting out the wider context of the cloud market:
- AWS is a fast growing business, roughly 13% of Amazon’s total sales (as of fiscal Q1 2019). Just 15 years old, it has quickly come to represent the bulk of Amazon’s profits (and is sometimes the only part of Amazon that is in profit – though Amazon would say that they choose not to make the retail business profitable, preferring to reinvest).
- Microsoft’s Azure is regularly referred to as a smaller, but faster growing business than AWS. Google is smaller still. It’s hard to be sure though – getting like for like comparisons is difficult. AWS’ revenues in Q2 2019 were $7.7bn, and Microsoft’s cloud (which includes Office 365 and other products) had $9.6bn in revenues. AWS’ growth rate was 41%, Azure’s was 73% – both rates are down year on year. Google’s cloud (known as GCP) revenue isn’t broken out separately but is included in a line that includes G-Suite, Google Play and Nest, totalling $5.45bn, up 25%
- Amazon, as first mover, has built quite the lead with various figures published, including those in the Telegraph article, suggesting it has as much as 50% of the nascent cloud market. Other sources quote Azure at between 22 and 30% and Google at less than 10%%
There’s a almost “by the by” figure quoted that I can’t source, where Lloyd’s of London apparently said that “even a temporary shutdown at a major cloud provider like AWS could wreak almost $20bn in business losses.” The Lloyd’s report I downloaded says:
- A cyber incident that took a “top three cloud provider” offline in the US for 3-6 days would cost between $6.9bn and $14.7bn (much of which is uninsured, with insured losses running $1.5-2.8bn)
What’s clear from all of the figures is that the cloud market is expanding quickly, that Amazon has seized a large share of that market but is under pressure from growing rivals, and that there is an increasing concentration of workloads deployed to the cloud.
It’s also true that governments generally, but particularly UK government, are a long way from a wholesale move to the cloud with few front line, transactional services, deployed. Most of those services are still stuck in traditional data centres, anchored by legacy systems that are slow to change and that will resist, for years to come, a move to a cloud environmnet. Instead, work will likely be sliced away from them, a little at a time, as new applications are built and the various transformation projects see at least some success.
When the move to cloud started, government was still clinging to the idea that its data somehow needed protection beyond that used by banks, supermarkets and retailers. There was a vast industry propping up the IL3 / Restricted classification (where perhaps 75-80% of government data sat, mostly emails asking “what’s for lunch?”). This classification made cloud practically impossible – IL3 data could not sit on the same servers or storage as lower (or higher) classified data, it needed to be in the UK andsecured in data centres that Tom Cruise and the rest of the Mission Impossible team couldn’t get into. Let’s not even get into IL4. And, yes, I recognise that the use of IL3 and IL4 in regards to data isn’t quite right, but it was by far the most used way of referring to that data.
Then, in 2014, after some years of work, government made a relatively sudden, and dramatic, switch. 95% of data was “Official” and could be handled with commercial products and security. A small part was “Official Sensitive” which required additional handling controls, but no change in the technical environment.
And so the public cloud market became a viable option for governments systems – all of them, not just websites and transactional front ends but potentially anything that government did (that didn’t fall into the 5% of things that are secret and above).
Government was relatively slow to recognise this – after all, there was a vast army of people who had been brought up to think about data in terms of the “restricted” classification, and such a seismic change would take time. There are still some departments that insist on a UK presence, but there are many who say “official is official” and anywhere in the UK is fine
It was this, more than anything, that blew the doors off the G-Cloud market. You can see the rise in Lot 1/IaaS cloud spend from April 2014 onwards. That was not just broad awareness of cloud as an option, but the recognition that the old rules no longer applied.
The UK’s small and medium companies had built infrastructures based around the IL3 model. It was more expensive, took longer, and forced them through the formal accreditation model. Few made it through; only those with strong engineering standards and good process discipline and, perhaps, relatively deep pockets. But once “official” came along, much of that work was over the top, driving cost and overhead into the model and it wasn’t enough of a moat to keep the scale players out.
I’ve let contracts worth several hundred million pounds in total and worked with people who have done 5, 10 or 20x that amount. I’ve never met anyone in government who bought something because of a relationship with a former colleague or because of any bias for or against any supplier. Competition is fearsome. Big players can outspend small players. They can compete on price and features. Small players can still win. Small players can become big players. Skate where the puck is going, not where it was.
How does a government department choose a cloud provider?
Whilst the original aim of G-Cloud was to be able to type in a specification of what was wanted and have the system spit out some costs (along with iTunes style reviews), the reality is that getting a quote is more complicated than that. The assumption, then, was perhaps that cloud services would be true commodity, paying by the minute, hour or day for servers, storage and networks. That largely isn’t the case today.
There are three components to a typical evaluation
1) How much will it cost?
2) What is the range of products that I can deploy and how easily can I make that happen? Is the supplier seen by independent bodies as a leader or a laggard.
3) Do I, or my existing partners, already have the skills needed to manage this environmment?
Most customers will likely start with (3), move to (2) and then evaluate (1) for the suppliers that make it through.
Is there a bias here? With AWS having close to 50% market share of the entire cloud market, the market will be full of people with AWS skills, followed closely by those with Azure skills (given the predominance of Microsoft environments for e.g. Active Directory, email etc in government). Departments will look at their existing staff, or that of their suppliers, or who they can recruit, and pick their strategy based on the available talent.
Departments will also look at Gartner, or Forrester, and see who is in the lead. They will talk to a range of supplier partners and see who is using what. They will consult their peers and see who is doing what.
But there’s no bias against, or for, any given supplier. We can see that when we read about companies who have been hauled over the coals by one department and the very next week they get a new contract from a different department. Don’t read conspiracy into anything government ever does; it’s far more likely to be cockup.
Is there a revolving door?
People come into government from the outside world and people leave government to go to the outside world. In the mid-2000s there was a large influx of very senior Accenture people joining government; did Accenture benefit? If anything, they probably lost out as the newcomers were overcautious rather than overzealous.
Government departments don’t choose a provider because a former colleague or Cabinet Office power broker is employed by the supplier. As anywhere, relationships persist for a period – not as long as you would think – and so some suppliers are better able to inform potential customers of the range of their offer, but this is not a simple relationship. Some people are well liked, some are well respected and some are neither. There are 17,000 people in government IT. They all play a role. Some will stay, some will go. Some make decisions, some don’t.
Also, a bid informed by a former colleague could be better written than one uninformed. This advantage doesn’t last beyond a few weeks. I’ve worked on a lot of bids (both as buyer and seller) and I’m still amazed how many suppliers fail to answer the question, don’t address the scoring criteria, or waffle away beyond the word count. If you’ve been a buyer, you will likely be able to teach a supplier how to write a bid; but there are any number of people who can do that,
There is little in the way of inside information about what government is or isn’t doing or what its strategy will look like. Spend a couple of hours with an architect or bid manager in any Systems Integrator that has worked for several departments and you will know as much about government IT strategy as anyone on the inside.
Do costs escalate (and are suppliers lowballing)?
Once a contract is signed, and proved to be working, it would be unusual if more work was not put through that same contract.
What’s different about cloud is mostly a function of the sift from capex to opex. Servers largely sit there and rust. The cost is the cost. Maybe they’re 10% used for most of their lives, with occasional higher spikes. But the cost for them doesn’t change. Any fluctuations in power are wrapped into a giant overhead number that isn’t probed too closely.
Cloud environments consume cash all the time though. Spin up a server and forget to spin it down and it will cost you money. Fire up more capacity than you need, and it will cost you money. Set up a development environment for a project and, when the project start is delayed by governance questions, don’t spin it down, and it will cost you money. Plan for more capacity than you needed and don’t dynamically adjust it, and it will cost you money. Need some more security, that’s extra? Different products, that’s more as well. If you don’t know what you need when you set out, it will certainly cost more than you expected when you’re done.
Many departments will have woken up to this new cost model when they received their first bill and it was 3x or 5x what they expected. Cost disciplines will then have been imposed, probably unsuccessfully. Over time, these will be improving, but there are still going to be plenty of cases of sticker shock, both for new and existing cloud customers, I’m sure.
But if the service is working, more projects will be put through the same vehicle, sometimes with additional procurement checks, sometimes without. The Inland Revenue’s original contract with EDS was valued, in 1992, at some £200m/year. 10 years later it was £400m and not long after that, with the addition of HMCE (to form HMRC), and the transition to CapGemini, it was easily £1bn.
Did EDS lowball the cost? Probably. And it probably hurt them for a while until new business began to flow through the contract – in 1992, the IR did not have a position on Internet services, but as it began to add them in the late 90s, its costs would have gone up, without offsetting reductions elsewhere.
Do suppliers lowball the cost today? Far less so, because the old adage “price it low and make it up on change control” is difficult to pull off now and with unit costs available and many services or goods being bought at a unit cost rate, it would be difficult to pull the wool over the eyes of a buyer.
Is tax paid part of the evaluation?
For thirty years until the cloud came along, most big departments relied on their outsourced suppliers to handle technology – they bought servers, cabled them up, deployed products, patched them (sometimes) and fed and watered them. Many costs were capitalised and nearly everything was bought through a managed services deal because VAT could be reclaimed that way.
Existing contracts were used because it avoided new procurements and ensured that there was “one throat to choke”, i.e. one supplier on the hook for any problems. Most of these technology suppliers were (and are) based outside of the UK and their tax affairs are not considered in the evaluation of their offers.
HMRC, some will recall, did a deal with a property company registered in Bermuda, called Mapeley, that doesn’t pay tax in the UK.
Tax just isn’t part of the evaluation, for any kind of contract. Supplier finances are – that is, the ability of a company to scale to support a government customer, or to withstand the loss of a large customer.
Is 1/3rd of government information stored in AWS?
No. Next question.
IaaS expenditure is perhaps £10-12m/month (through end of 2018). Total government IT spend, as I’ve covered here before, is somewhere between £7bn and £14bn/year. In the early days of the Crown Hosting business case, hosting costs were reckoned to be up to 25% of that cost. Some 70% of the spend is “keep the lights on” for existing systems.
Most government data is still stored on servers and storage owner by government or its integrators and sits in data centres, some owned by government, but most owned by those integrators. Web front ends, email, development and test environments are increasingly moving to the cloud, but the real data is still a long way from being cloud ready.
Are 80% of contracts won by large providers?
Historically, no. UKcloud revenues over the life of G-Cloud are £86m with AWS at around £63m (through end of 2018). AWS’ share is plainly growing fast though – because of skills in the marketplace, independent views of the range of products and supportability, and because of price.
Momentum suggests that existing contracts will get larger and it will be harder (and harder) for contracts to move between providers, because of the risk of disruption during transition, the lack of skill and the difficulty of making a benefits case for incurring the cost of transition when the savings probably won’t offset that cost.
So what should we do?
It’s easy to say “nothing.” Government doesn’t pick winners and has rarely been successful in trying to skew the market. The cloud market is still new, but growing fast, and it’s hard to say whether today’s winners will still be there tomorrow.
G-Cloud contracts last only two years and, in theory, there is an opportunity to recompete then – see what’s new in the market, explore new pricing options and transition to the new best in class (or Most Economically Advantageous Tender as it’s known)
But transition is hard, as I wrote here in March 2014. And see this one, talking about mobile phones, from 2009 (with excerpts from a 2003 piece). If services aren’t designed to transition, then it’s unlikely to ever happen.
That suggests that we, as government customers, should:
1) Consciously design services to be portable, recognising that will likely increase costs up front (which will make the business case harder to get through), but that future payback could offset those costs; if the supplier knows you can’t transition, you’re in a worse position than if you have choices
2) Build tools and capabilities that support multiple cloud environments so that we can pick the right cloud for the problem we are trying to solve. If you have all of your workloads in one supplier and in one region, you are at risk if there is a problem there, be it fat fingers or a lightning strike.
3) Train our existing teams and keep them up to date with new technologies and services. Encourage them to be curious about what else is out there. Of course they will be more valuable to others, including cloud companies, when you do this, but that’s a fact of life. You will lose people (to other departments and to suppliers) and also gain people (from other departments and from suppliers).
And, as government suppliers, we should:
1) Recognise that big players exist in big markets and that special treatment is rarely available. They may not pay tax in this jurisdiction, but that’s a matter for law, not procurement. They may hire people from government; you have already done the same and you will continue to look out for the opportunity. Don’t bleat, compete.
2) Go where the big players aren’t going. Offer more, for less, or at least for the same. Provide products that compound your customers investment – they’re no longer buying assets for capex, but they will want increased benefit for their spend, so offer new things.
3) Move up the stack. IaaS was always going to be a tough business to compete in. WIth big players able to sweat their assets 24/7, anyone not able to swap workloads between regions and attract customers from multiple sectors that can better overlap peak workloads, is going to struggle. So don’t go there, go where the bigger opportunities are. Government departments aren’t often buying dropbox, so what’s your equivalent for instance?
1) Expect government to intervene and give you preferential treatment because you are small and in the UK. Expect such preferential treatment if you have a better product, at a better price that gets closest to solving the specific problem that the customer has.
2) Expect government to break up a bigger business, or change its structure so that you can better compete. It might happen, sure, but your servers will have long since rusted away by the time that happens.