Explain IT: Season 3, Episode 6 - The Versatility of Cloud Technology

Playing now - The Versatility of Cloud Technology


In this episode we look at the versatility of cloud technology and how it’s helped in the fight against coronavirus and how these changes might benefit the future. Dean Gardner, Softcat’s chief technologist for cloud and Wayne Phillips, worldwide public sector partner manager at AWS join host Zac Abbott to share their thoughts and expertise on the matter.

From L to R: Dean Gardner, Wayne Phillips, Zac Abbott
Zac Abbott
Zac Abbott Senior Account Manager Softcat
Dean Gardner
Dean Gardner Chief Technologist for Cloud Softcat
Wayne Phillips
Wayne Phillips Worldwide Public Sector Partner Manager AWS
Key takeaways
  • Covid-19 has encouraged businesses to move faster in making changes to their cloud technology, bringing forward updates to their infrastructure to support their staff and new ways of working.
  • The public sector has been heavily supported by cloud technology through services such as the roll out of telemedicine in Wales, changes to how education is delivered and HMRC’s furlough scheme.
  • Virus testing will use cloud technology and AI to facilitate a quick and accurate way of testing the population regularly and efficiently. This will demonstrate a huge development that would not have been possible a few years ago.
  • Cloud infrastructure has got a great capacity, is resilient and secure, offering a fast and efficient way to move workloads, especially critical at times of national emergency.
  • The pandemic has highlighted those organisations who need to look at how they are investing in technology as they need to react quickly to customer demands.
  • Cloud technology is accelerating, with new opportunities opening up to use it for efficiency, capacity and modernisation.

Enter Transcript Here

“When government is as easy to use and as friendly as amazon.com retail website is, then we know we've kind of, cloud has become a really useful piece of technology for our citizens, and I think we nearly there, and I think this process that we’re going through right now is going to accelerate things.”

Zac Abbott: Hello and welcome to Explain IT brought to you by Softcat; the show for IT professionals by IT professionals that aims to simplify the complex and often overcomplicated bits of Enterprise IT without compromising on the detail. Welcome back to another lockdown episode of Explain IT. I'm your host Zac Abbott and over the next 20ish minutes I'll be challenging our panel of experts to take an area of the IT ecosystem and of course Explain IT. In this episode we’re going to be talking about the versatility of cloud technology; how it's being used to help the fight against coronavirus; how organisations are using it to keep operating; and where we will see the technology go in the future. Joining me today to discuss this is Dean Gardner, Softcat’s chief technologist for cloud and Wayne Phillips, worldwide public sector partner manager at AWS. Wayne, Dean, welcome to the show, thank you for joining us today. We all live our lives currently through video calls, but my question to you today is if you could choose three people to come on a video call with you, who would they be and why? Wayne?

Wayne Phillips: So I'm going to choose three historical characters. So the first one and apologies to our Italian listeners for butchering his first name, is Guglielmo Marconi. I shall call him Mr Marconi from now on, because Guglielmo is a bit tricky for me to say. But people will remember him as the inventor of long-distance radio communications. So in the 1920s or slightly earlier in fact, he perfected the business of being able to communicate over wireless radio, so that would be my first, Mr Marconi. Secondly would be a contemporary of his, Alexander Graham Bell. And he is noted for and remembered mostly for the invention of the telephone. And my last guest would be another name that probably isn't unfamiliar, would be John Logie Baird, the inventor of television. So I think those three would make a great trio of folks to have a conversation with 100 years on from those groundbreaking landmark inventions of theirs.

Zac Abbott: Yeah, definitely, and three genuinely well thought out links and Dean I'm sure yours were going to be as well thought out and as connected as…

Dean Gardner: Absolutely not Zac! So mine aren't as, certainly as interesting and as well thought out and well informed as Wayne’s. Mine are a footballer, a politician and a comedian. I've gone for Pele, Mandela and Billy Connolly. I just think that'd be fantastic. I miss my football dearly, I think Pele - best footballer ever. My wife is South African and Mandela is a pretty much a legend just generally, I think everybody is aware of that. And Billy Connolly again, I think comedy genius, and between them I think it would be fantastic. But I think Wayne's, in terms of the relevance for where we are today and everything that we use, I think his three are fantastic.

Zac Abbott: Nice, they're both very good answers guys, unfortunately they are both incorrect, the correct response to that question was of course three David Attenboroughs. So guys we've heard that cloud is playing a crucial role in the fight against coronavirus. At this time, what have you seen cloud technologies being used for? 

Wayne Phillips: Yeah great question. I think what we're seeing is probably a couple of things really. One of which is a continuation of the way the world was before Covid-19, so I think we were already on a trajectory with cloud, and let me come back to that in a second, and I think the second one then is the novelty of the new use cases and the way in which cloud has been able to interpose itself, in a way, into the necessity and the needs that we've seen over the last few weeks. And perhaps, in a way, doing things that probably customers wouldn't have necessarily thought cloud was likely to be there first port of call. Maybe eventually, but certainly it's accelerated the use cases for Cloud, I think, in a way that probably wouldn't have imagined if we’d have thought 6/8 weeks ago, “oh gosh is that application or is that customer going to move this workload or this particular workstream to the cloud?” so let me go back to the trajectory piece for a second, so I've been in public sector all my life and joined AWS from being retired within the intention of staying for 3-months and 6 years later I'm still here and I do that because I'm passionate about the cloud, I am absolutely amazed at the way the cloud has truly transformed the public sector and the way that public sector both runs its own business but more importantly the way that public sector works with citizens, the way that they interface with citizens. There’s been a huge transformation, we can talk more about that later on, but I think that trajectory we're already seeing cloud becoming the new normal, UK government of course has got a cloud-first and then a cloud-native policy meaning that government departments and agencies should be thinking about using cloud ahead of using legacy and on-premises systems, so we were already starting to see that, but really this Covid-19 period has really accelerated it and we've seen lots of new use cases coming up and again, we can evolve that conversation a bit later on. But I think across the board within public sector, some are pretty obvious, you've seen schools and the whole education system shifting from an in-person, classroom-base to an online classroom base and other types of remote learning, but we've also started to see that in the realms of telemedicine, for example, so NHS in Wales is doing an incredible job equipping all of their GP practices now to be able to do remote telemedicine. That's just an extraordinary shift and you think, if this hasn't happened, we’ll call it ‘This’ if This hadn't happened, how many years would it have been before we would have seen that? And I'm going to say I don't think we’d have seen that in many, many years. We might have seen it as an option, we might have seen it as being sporadically implemented in some places, but the fact that they rolled that out across the whole of their GP infrastructure in Wales in such a short period of time is truly remarkable. So I think there's lots of examples like that and we can kind of go on and dive into a few more a bit later on, but I'll get off my soapbox and hand it over to Dean.

Dean Gardner: Yeah so just echoing really, so the education piece has been phenomenal, how schools have had to adjust at all levels and all grades, and it's a mixture of how remote learning and basically giving those classroom-based access to students and shipping devices to people to be able to allow their kids to log in and do those things, I think it's incredible how that's been mobilised. And the money from the Department of Education as well that's become available to do that and accelerate that, and we're seeing that remote doctor stuff - we’re working with companies like Babylon at the moment, and they're heavily invested in the likes of AWS and their businesses has expanded dramatically over the last few months for obvious reasons. And even down to local government where local government, historically, wasn't the fastest to market in terms of using tools and actually using collaboration and being able to mobilise their staff in a way where they can still carry on supporting the local authorities, I think that's definitely happened and it's accelerated in that space. And it's the same across the commercial space businesses all over, as we all know, working in this way, the uptake of those collaboration tools, and still being able to carry on and work together and do these kinds of VC sessions, if you will, and even us to be able to do this podcast, it's still possible and it's even more so. And it's opened up, I think a lot of individual innovations and switching on technology to allow individuals to become more aware of the technology, so they’re almost becoming... they’re learning on the job basically, they've got no choice and I think that's a good thing, I think it's a positive thing and it's incredible when you see some of the growth from those companies that are releasing these technologies, it's obvious that it's being attributed to what's going on and the key thing for me is that it’s going to accelerate that digital agenda, it’s going to accelerate this way of working, it's going to make businesses rethink about how they run their businesses in future. I saw a quote the other day from the chap who runs Barclays in the UK, and he was saying, “We've got all this office space and actually, as a business, we're still being able to function”. So we’re going to see a lot of organisations that have a lot of real estate looking at it, going, “Do we need it?”. And I think the positive that will come from this is it's just challenging the norm that we were used to three, four months ago and to be honest, it's the direction of travel as I think Wayne was saying, and if it can accelerate it and it can become a balance as to where it fits and it doesn't fit and allow us to make those decisions then it's a positive, a big positive in my opinion.

Zac Abbott: Yeah absolutely something that's of huge importance at the moment is coronavirus testing, obviously. Does cloud technology have a role to play in that?

Dean Gardner: I think what we're going to see and we're already seeing certain references coming out where projects are being deployed, and this is a global effort as well, into cloud to be able to do analytics and testing and research, because you can, and actually the likes of AWS and there are obviously other public clouds, they have that scalability to allow research and development and certainly, what Wayne was saying, their developers to use those technologies and scale up and scale down as they see fit and we know that's where cloud comes into its own with the agility, but ultimately it’s about results and the analytics and the data that’s put in to then produce results for then get to a quick answer which ultimately what we want for this particular crisis and I think what we’ll see post covid, if there is such a thing, or will be such a thing because it’ll continue in my opinion, in terms of what's going to happen, but there will be a lot of referenceability, I think, coming out of it and learning on what's possible and I think we're. We’re seeing, as I say, a lot of research and development going in that direction because you can and I think we're going to see a lot of results off the back of that.

Wayne Phillips: So Dean, you’re absolutely right and I can really put a bit of colour on what you're saying there because my normal day job is that I look after our partners across Europe and Eastern Africa but my today job which has been going on for a few weeks now has been very much about supporting our partners that are working on testing programmes for the NHS. So as you know, probably you do know, that the NHS is a bit of a fragmentary beast, there's NHS England, there’s one in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland as well and we don't actually have a universal, UK-wide process for this or mechanism for this, but nonetheless, going back about 3 or 4 weeks ago when the whole issue of antigen testing, in other words testing people to see whether they've got coronavirus, and doing that at scale became a national topic of conversation and it still is a national topic of conversation, every day people are looking at the numbers and saying are we testing enough, are we testing the right sort of people and so forth. So the NHS, we lent in and helped the NHS build an application for firstly registering key workers, so the key worker registration process because they were the priority people to test, these are front line NHS workers and people who support the direct fight against coronavirus, so registering those people and actually making sure that they had the ability to get tested frequently, as frequently as necessary, is a huge national effort and it's really done it three ways. One of which is that you have to register on the platform, that's right, but then the three ways is you get tested at your place of work, so you can get tested in a hospital, you can get tested in a drive-through, and we've all seen these large unused supermarkets and out of town shopping centre car parks that have been converted to drive through testing centres, and the third way home testing. So we built the key worker registration portal which runs on the government's .gov.uk website, we built that. And then secondly we have also built the fulfilment process for Amazon logistics to send the home testing kits. So joining up our normal Amazon e-commerce platform to a government website. You can imagine the challenges associated with that, that's not something you would do everyday, right? That's a unique challenge in and of itself. But it's one that I've got to say, our team did with remarkable speed as a one Amazon effort. AWS is a part of Amazon, but generally we don't really work that closely with Amazon, not from a retail perspective at least. But being able to get that team together and then after we built this we handed over to the customer and the customer then needed somebody to support it and maintain it and that's where our partner ecosystem comes in. So we've got a partner who was very well known by the Health Service, they were already doing a lot of stuff with NICE and other health agencies and bodies who had the ability to step in, they knew the technology that had been developed in which was all serverless technology, so if you're familiar with Lambda and dynamodb, these are the sort of technologies that we used on, it's a real cloud-native, leading-edge stuff. And the partner is now picked up the responsibility to manage and support that service. And then rinse and repeat because NHS in Wales had a very similar requirement, in fact just the same, but with their own different ways of doing things. They had their own different business processes in Wales, so we had to build an application for them to do something similar. Same approach, handed over to the customer who then engages with a partner to support it. So that's antigen testing and that's very important, we’ve seen that's going to be scaled a bit larger than it has been for key workers, but going forward the thing that's going to be the key, I think anyway, the key to getting us out of, not just lockdown, but getting us back to work and getting us back to feeling comfortable about leaving the house even, is antibody testing. So this is the test which is a very different sort of test, it's not the same one which is a swab down the throat and up the nose which needs to be performed in a very specific manner, an antibody test is basically a small blood test. You get a testing strip a bit like anybody that's diabetic will be very familiar with these. You prick your finger, you put some blood onto the test strip and it tells you some information. The problem is, is that nobody at home, unless you're a doctor or medical professional, will really have the ability to interpret that. It's incredibly hard for a lay person to know what that result means. Yeah you've got your result on a stick, but what does it mean? And this is where technology really begins to kick in and really is a game changer, this is where AI comes in. So if you imagine that test strip and you could capture an image of that test strip using a smartphone with an AI augmented web app which would tell you when the lighting was right, when the focus is right, when the scaling is right, you've got the camera in the right position and when it's happy with the picture it takes the photograph, sends it off to the AI, the AI has been trained by medical experts who know how to interpret that strip, they know exactly what they are looking for, and they train the AI in the way that a doctor would examine or medical practitioner would examine that strip. Except that they can do that at an unlimited scale. We can do that by population scale, we can test 14 million adults with that system, and not just once, we can test them every month if we like, we can test them for the next three years if we like, because that system will scale up when it needs to scale up, it will scale down when it needs to scale down. We can even switch it off when we need to switch it off and just start it again tomorrow. So the cloud with its elasticity, with its scalability, but also with the performance because we can't wait days for the results of these tests to come back, people need to get the answer back on their smartphone at the speed at which they sent the data up to the AI to get processed, so that roundtrip processing of telling people where they are in their coronavirus journey, whether they’ve got it actively, whether they have had it, whether they are clear of it, whether they've never had it, all of that is really only possible if you do antibody testing. So that for me, together with vaccination, is the way that we're going to return the world to being normal and technology around vaccine, AI has been used extensively by the way in modelling the way vaccines should work, because the vaccine programme is bringing something to market in six months which would normally take two and a half years and that again is only possible by Pharma companies and researchers using technology to model that stuff. But also this business about antibody testing, being able to do population scale testing were everybody feels comfortable with doing it, they feel as comfortable with this as they would just taking their temperature, it's no more complicated than that and I think these are the two things that are going to help.

Dean Gardner: And the key thing there is, I think you touched upon one of the challenges, naturally it's something that can be done in a particular country, even in the UK, Wales, and the way the health system works, it needs to be done separately, but fundamentally if these systems can be rolled out, for me, it needs to be a global effort, if this technology’s available the only way you’re going to get multiple countries, that insular thought process of looking after the country and the people in it, it's great, but going forward it has to be a global effort and with that data that's being harvested and with the results that are coming out the back of it. Ultimately that is where it becomes, for me, one of the most important things and the cloud platforms and it doesn't matter if it's one or all of them, but  being able to analyse all of that data in some way off the back end to produce the shaping, if you will, of how to resolve and quickly get results is critical. I think the companies like Microsoft and Amazon, AWS and Google, these hyperscalers that sit in that space, they're all working in that way where they want to provide support, provide investment as well, and there's a lot of investment from them, into being able to accelerate these kinds of results and these are the sorts of things that even 2, 3, 4 years ago, just weren’t possible, and so as much as we've got this global pandemic where naturally, we've got to the situation, I think, as I say, the learning’s coming out of, going through it and coming out the back of it, just the speed at which we can get results, as long as we can manage that data on the back end, we should be able to respond in a global effort quicker than we could ever have done previously.

Zac Abbott: Ok brilliant. So we've seen that cloud technology has also been a fantastic tool in allowing the continued operation of many organisations. Can you guys tell us a little bit more about what you've seen from organisations mobilising their cloud infrastructure?

Wayne Phillips: Sure, yeah absolutely. I think one of the best examples I can think of is the way that the government has been able to support workers through the furlough scheme. If you would have imagined that government IT would have been able to, in the space of under a month, build a system that allowed, effectively what's reverse taxation, that's how that support scheme operates. To take the PAYE system and to change the polarity, so that the cash flow goes the opposite direction, instead of it going to the government, it comes backwards into employers. You think about how complex the taxation system is in this country, just the taxation legislation. If you ever had the misfortune to look at taxation legislation you'll know that it's longer than the Oxford English Dictionary, and I mean the big version of it, it spans about 13 volumes, it's incredibly complicated. So for an organisation like HMRC which perhaps is one of our largest government departments and perhaps in that sense, being polite and I'm sure they wouldn't disagree, as perhaps not built for speed, shall we say. But they've been forced to operate with an enormous amount of speed and it's incredible how they've been able to turn that system around in such a short period of time and I'm going to say, of course, because I work for a cloud company, it would have been impossible to do any of that if it wasn't for cloud. We wouldn't have even had the equipment landing in the country to be able to install in the data centre in the time it took for them to be able to build and go live with that system. When I used to work for IBM back in the 80s and 90s, I used to look after the MOD, the military, at the time of the first Gulf war in 1990, 91, 92, and I had a green card, we used to call it in IBM, from my country managing director because I could jump the queue because there was a national priority to get hold of mainframes and disk drives and PCs and all the stuff that was required by the military when they went to war to support the war effort. And even then it still took about 4 to 6 weeks to get hold of equipment because ultimately it has to be built, somebody has to build a disk drive, they have to build a mainframe. Cloud infrastructure has got capacity, yes there have been some instances where cloud vendors have had some capacity issues, but I think they're generally not been business or mission critical to our customers. So the ability to absorb that workload into the cloud, if you think how many hundreds of thousands of servers AWS has in our UK region and how many millions of servers that we have in our global infrastructure, we have an enormous capacity. So firstly that's number one. The ability to have capacity to do something significant that would normally take you a long time. The second thing is cloud technology through the way that the development environment and the testing environment operates accelerates the whole process. You can build an application which is a complex application, which has many interfaces and touchpoints with other systems. You can just build that much more quickly using cloud technology. So we can debate that and talk about that a bit more if you like, but the reality is, is that things that would have taken months to build in the old world can be built much more rapidly and then they can be tested to make sure that they work because nobody wants to launch a business-critical or in this case, national critical infrastructure system that fails, it would be a disaster if that system went live and it didn't work. So testing it and making sure that when it goes live it's got the ability to scale, it's got the resilience, it's got the security and in other words it earns the trust and gains the trust of the users. That all, to me, is super duper important. So the work that HMRC did with setting up that system is just a brilliant example and I can't really think of a better one because of the scale, because of the complexity, because of the environment that it operates in and because of the criticality to make sure that people get paid and businesses keep continuity. I think there's nothing more important, other than testing, than anything that's going on in this country at the moment.

Dean Gardner: And I think it's fair to say that the continuation of that, because these systems will go live and there’s going to be learning daily, hourly as to what works and what doesn't work. And actually the levels of programmes that the government obviously has announced to support those in such a short space of time is going to be a huge challenge, but the public expects, when they log in, when they access, for that particular individual, the system’s going to work because it doesn't take a lot for one or two not to be able to get to something or do something for it to make the news. So the responsibility, after the deployment of these technologies, hence why there's been a gap to get not only the processes in place but obviously the technology in place to support it. I think it's going to be, I agree, incredible, hopefully it works and it all does the job it's supposed to do but again, the learning that will come from it will be hopefully, beneficial to everybody. But the bits we’re seeing actually from a lot of our customers is a reassess of things like data management, people who have things like tape backup, as boring as it might be, ultimately a lot of companies, they can't get into data centres. So we've seen an uptake and certainly more conversations with customers on looking at technologies; backup technologies and disaster recovery or business continuity technologies which allow them to swing some of their existing environments back into or into public cloud as a bit of an insurance policy. And we're just seeing more of that over the last 3 or 4 weeks. And I don't think that's going to stop and virtual desktops - for years people have said it's the year of VDI and it probably will be, our colleague Adam Harding said it I think, a few times but this year we’re seeing the virtual desktop and world essentially emerging as part of the whole mobilisation piece of user and certainly I think that will continue and using cloud as the platform to deploy virtual desktops, we’ve seen a lot of activity and that in the last month, in addition to all the collaboration tools we’re helping customers configure. So those things, I think, will just carry on and we’ve said it a few times, this crisis, if it's doing anything, it's allowing people to potentially do technology that was on the road map, but they’ve just brought it forward and accelerated a lot quicker than they would have ever expected.

Zac Abbott: Some people are saying that cloud technology is an easy buy, but harder to get the most out of from an end-user perspective. What would you say is the best way for organisations to maximize their cloud capabilities?

Dean Gardner: I think those that have not, or attempted to look at where they can measure outcomes from using technology, those that haven't invested in technology in the way that actually benefits the business over the last few years, we’re seeing already evidence that through this process and through this crisis there's some struggling organisations. Some of it you can't help, some the businesses it doesn't matter what their digital experience is like, but fundamentally there's a lot of companies out there that haven't invested or have under invested in technology and I think the key thing there is that it's measuring the outcome. If you're investing in doing something, making sure that you're seeing the benefits off the back of it, just echoing what Wayne said, but also the key thing for me is, there's been an education gap in terms of where cloud technology can play a part. We’re working with a lot of people that work in IT that have worked with on-premise infrastructure and they know server storage networking, they know how to configure VLANs, they can configure switches, they can do all that kind of stuff and it doesn't translate. I think what we're saying is the lift and shift doesn't translate and the way things are pulled together within public cloud does not translate. It is a LEGO box of bits and fundamentally you have to know and be educated on how to use those bits for providing the outcome that's required for the requirement of that business and I think what we’re seeing is that organisations are now looking into how they can use the technology to benefit, measure the outcome and then look at that digital experience in terms of what they providing the end user. And I think government is absolutely going for a fast track process, but we’re also seeing a load of other organisations that I think, out of this, will be definitely be reviewing that. And looking at where their budget goes, and looking at where they spend their money. Yes spending it more wisely, but fundamentally using it for the right reason, not using it for everything, using it for the right reason, for the right outcome. I do look at it and say, “Well the experience from the end user, it’s like anything, if even the tools we’re using, as we’re all using today, a lot of users out there wouldn’t have used those tools historically, so they’re using them. There's a benefit”. So these collaboration tools that we talk about, when people go back they’re going to carry on using those tools because they’re used to using them for a two or three month period where they’ve seen a benefit. And it's the same for, Wayne said there, the applications that are being developed and configured, people are going to look at how they do those things and in this period hopefully, and we’re seeing this already, a lot more people doing training, a lot more people doing education on how to use these technologies. And from my perspective taking that back into the organisation that they go back to, I just think there's going to be more focus on doing it to improve their end-user customer experience and technology, absolutely, is the foundation for that, in most cases.

Zac Abbott: Fantastic, thanks guys. That about brings us to the end of the episode. Dean, before you go can you give us a quick 10 second summary - how is cloud technology being used in the fight against coronavirus? How has it been used by organisations to ensure business continuity? And what are we likely to see in the future?

Dean Gardner: So I mean we've seen just by the mobility of people that cloud technology has enabled us to work in these ways. We've seen a lot more organisations having to respond very quickly to continual demands for their customers and cloud has been a way to be able to deploy - public sector certainly has been able to deploy and develop certain technologies to facilitate the citizen and the end user in ways that were never thought possible. And going forward, the learnings from that will just accelerate and I think open up the opportunities to do more in that way.

Zac Abbott: Well not quite 10 seconds but I'll let you off, thanks Dean. Well that's it for this episode of Explain IT, Dean, Wayne, it's been great talking with you, thank you very much for your time.

Wayne Phillips: Thanks for having me

Dean Gardner: Cheers Zac.

Zac Abbott: If anything in this show has piqued your interest or you'd like to talk to someone at Softcat about anything we've discussed on the episode, you can reach us at [email protected] Also make sure you click subscribe whatever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening to Explain IT from Softcat.