Interview: Basho’s Bobby Patrick on the public sector, data management and the G-cloud Framework

We chatted with Bobby Patrick, Executive Vice President and CMO of Basho Technologies, to discuss the implications of Oracle’s approach to the UK government’s G-Cloud framework after it announced that it would build a datacentre with G-Cloud certification and what it means for public sector organisations.

What unique challenges do public sector organisations face with regards to storing their data?

As public sector organisations move to a more digital way of working, they are under increased pressure to store and manage large amounts of sensitive data about the population. The mistreatment of this data can spell disaster for offenders, and there are three key challenges that these organisations face:

Data Locality: Organisations must ensure that data stays within the country, and this includes replicated and archived data. Storing data in a different country can be a breach of data regulations and can have serious consequences.

Access Control: Citizen information must stay private and separated from other data. There have been numerous instances recently of data being mishandled or misplaced, and public sector organisations must ensure that they are taking appropriate measures to safeguard this information.

Data Availability: This is a particularly important issue in healthcare organisations, where critical data must always be available. Medical records, prescription logs and patient histories must be available to access on demand, as patient outcomes can depend on the decisions made based on this data.

What are the benefits and drawbacks of moves from the likes of Oracle to open a UK-based data centre to support the G-cloud?

Oracle’s plan to introduce a new IL3-certified facility dedicated to the UK government’s G-Cloud framework intends to provide quality cloud services and infrastructure to the government. The ability to store data within the UK is attractive to public organisations who typically deal with highly sensitive data. Oracle has hinted that this datacentre will be open to other vendors who have services to offer to public organisations and if this materialises, it will allow customers to benefit from access to features and functionalities which may not previously have been an option to them through Oracle alone. This technology innovation will ultimately help to drive efficiency within the public sector.

In the past, we’ve seen that traditionally proprietary vendors like Oracle tend not to have a broad-based partnering philosophy which has made this latest announcement both surprising but also refreshing. The closed approach which has become synonymous with Oracle risks trapping customers into costly and monolithic architectures which lack flexibility. These are not words that public sector organisations will want to hear as purse strings remain tight and as pressure to improve services mounts.

To use a good example in the healthcare space, Connecting for Health’s Spine database provides the infrastructure that delivers critical patient information such as the Summary Care Record. Based on Oracle infrastructure, Spine quickly became a hugely complex and costly giant which ultimately required over 2,000 staff to manage (not including the developers and specialist staff) and which has a hardware annuity charge of about £1 million per month. With this closed and proprietary system, costs simply spiralled out of control. To avoid this situation, the public sector needs to consider open source technology to provide the flexibility required to reduce costs. This is exactly what is now happening as the Spine infrastructure is updated.

What are the disadvantages of proprietary systems for public sector organisations and is there really an alternative bearing in mind SLA, availability and security requirements?

Proprietary systems do not always guarantee a higher SLA (Service Level Agreement), higher availability and increased security. The architecture of a proprietary system could be antiquated versus an open source based system that is flexible and may have better performance. The reverse can be true as well. For cases where availability is the highest requirement, an inherently distributed system will perform better than other architectures, regardless of whether it is proprietary or open source.

What can be the impact of vendor lock-in from the likes of Oracle and why is this particularly dangerous for the cash strapped public sector?

With proprietary software and the ability to lock-in customers, vendors are in a better position to force price increases and push additional software, such as major upgrades or add-ons that require additional costs. This lock-in means that customers have few/no options for competitive alternatives without wholesale upgrades. The longer you use and rely on an infrastructure, the more embedded and intrinsic it becomes to the way you work. Many organisations have realised that as a result, migrating later to new technology can be costly and difficult.

The public sector should look for a flexible architecture that promotes choice and which offers access to more vendors and user communities. This will not only lead to the lowest cost options, but also access to better software.

How can open source technology benefit the public sector?

Open source technology provides the public sector with many of the same benefits that are gained by larger proprietary alternatives in that it encourages the community to experiment, test and contribute to improve on the base product. This greatly enhances the value a product can provide, and this community based collaboration can often develop technologies that are far more advanced than any single vendor can create. Importantly, because it is open source, an organisation does not have to worry about a single vendor changing the product direction, discontinuing a product, or going out-of-business. This guarantees the longevity and continuity of a product they have created themselves.

The public sector has realised that open source can provide an economical way of procuring and developing an infrastructure, and providing a better quality of service. The UK government has been slower than its European counter-parts in the adoption of open source, but we're increasingly seeing the adoption throughout various public sector bodies.

What is Riak and how does it work?

Riak is Basho’s open-source, master-less, distributed database. It is highly-available and fault-tolerant by design with built-in replication. It is designed to run on cheap, commodity hardware. The software is intended to "scale-out" versus "scale-up" meaning that public sector organisations can start small, and grow quickly and cheaply, and also scale-down if needed.

As it is simple to operate, organisations can add new machines to a Riak cluster easily without incurring a large operational burden compared to a proprietary upgrade. The operational tasks that apply to small clusters apply to very large clusters that span multiple data centres as well which means that there is no added complexity the more developed your infrastructure becomes.

Riak has multiple search capabilities which allow organisations to quickly query data to serve citizens with very low latency to their mobile device or Web browser. Latency and response times can be incredibly important in public sector organisations in healthcare settings where every second counts. The speed at which clinicians can access patient data can potentially mean the difference in the outcome of a patient, so having a reliable infrastructure behind clinical workflows is crucial to delivering care.

For example, the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) is currently working with Basho to develop a database built on Riak which will support the entire Spine2 project. Although still in development phases, with Riak in place and just £20,000 worth of hardware, within four months of activity the HSCIC team were outperforming the legacy Spine solution which equates to unprecedented cost, time and resource savings. Stay tuned to hear more about this as the project evolves.

Basho is the developer of Riak, an open-source distributed database that provides high-availability, fault-tolerance, and operational simplicity.

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