AWS silly season – here we go

The AWS re:Invent annual conference in Las Vegas kicks-off next week, which means we are about to be snowed under by hundreds of new service announcments, product updates and the like. This year, AWS have started this process slightly early, so as not to overwhelm people during the week of the conferenece. There have been lots of announcements already.

Here are a few that I’ve spotted slipping past in my inbox that I think will be of interest to our members and customers. But there’s probably a lot of things that I’ve missed, so I suggest you keep an eye on the AWS blog for yourself. There will be so much coming out of AWS over the next week or so that keeping up will be more or less a full time job.

SES account-level suppression lists – For those of our customers that are sending large amounts of outbound email from their AWS-hosted services using SES (Simple Email Service), keeping up with bounces and complaints is a challenge. If they fail to stop sending mail to email addresses that have previously bounced, they run the risk of being blocked by AWS. (AWS have to do this to preseve the integrity of the SES service as a whole). AWS has now announced the availability of account-level suppression lists, which can be used by customers to protect their sender reputations and improve overall delivery rates for messages.

AWS managed rules for AWS WAF – AWS WAF is a web application firewall. It lets you define rules that give you control over which traffic to allow or deny to your application. You can use AWS WAF to help block common threats like SQL injections or cross-site scripting attacks. You can use AWS WAF with Amazon API Gateway, Amazon CloudFront, and Application Load Balancer. For most of our customers, we define and manage a set of rules in collaboration with them. AWS managed rules gives us a way of piggy-backing on the knowledge in AWS, choosing sets of rules that are maintained by AWS staff.

Least outstanding requests algorithm for load balancing requests – Sounds like a minimal announcement but I suspect it will actually be very useful. You can now use a ‘least outstanding requests’ algorithm, as well as plain old round-robin, to determine how Application Load Balancers share load across their target resources.

AWS Cost Categories – You can use use AWS Cost Categories to define custom rules to map to your internal business structures. After defining categorization rules, the system will organize your costs starting at the beginning of the month. Customers can visualize and monitor spend by viewing these categories in AWS Cost Explorer and AWS Budgets. We will look at the options here, particularly with regards to how we utilise this in our forthcoming Billing Portal.

Use employee attributes from your corporate directory for access control – You can now use your employees’ existing identity attributes, such as cost center and department, from your directory to create fine-grained permissions in AWS. Use these  to implement attribute-based access control to AWS resources and simplify permissions management.

As I say above, these are just a few of the many announcements that AWS have made over the last couple of days. I’ll be keeping an eye of future announcements and summarising the ones that I think are most relevent to our members and customer here.

The Capex to Opex Shift

Despite all the benefits of cloud, we often hear concerns about cloud. These generally fall into the following 6 categories which can be addressed with skills/knowledge or processes, be that creating or updating.

One concern within Business is the capex to opex shift. Whilst on premise kit is treated as capex because they are owned assets, consuming cloud services is opex which is treated differently.

I have created a little video of less than 9 minutes – an Accounting 101 demonstrating the capex to opex shift and giving some tips on how to understand it, accept it and move on – there is no magic wand!

A key takeaway is that only assets that you own can be treated as a capex and therefore depreciated. Prepaying for future services can go to the balance sheet as a prepayment and hit the P&L in the month you benefit from the service, but it will hit the P&L as the type of cost it is, eg IT costs, not depreciation. Why is this important? Because IT costs impact the ‘net profit’ line whereas depreciation is taken into account after ‘net profit’. Why is ‘net profit’ important? It is deemed to be a key metric of an organisations’ financial health; the ongoing profitability from day-to-day operational trading. In many industries remuneration schemes use this figure.

Whilst there isn’t a magic wand to make cloud capex, it is important to understand that moving to cloud is much more than a cost conversation. If you haven’t read it already, check out my previous blog on Digital Economics, which highlights that cost is just one aspect of moving to cloud, the real value is in growing the revenue as a result!

 

AWS Savings Plans

AWS have announced a new pricing feature called Savings Plans, offering a way of saving up to 72% on your compute (EC2 and Fargate) spend. Even though I suspect that in most cases the realised savings will be lower than this headline figure, there is no doubt that they will be substantial in many cases. This is a pretty big innovation in how customers can buy AWS resources.

Full details on the AWS Savings Plans web page.

Savings Plans is a new flexible pricing model that allows you to save up to 72% on Amazon EC2 and AWS Fargate in exchange for a commitment to a consistent amount of compute usage (e.g. $10/hour) for a 1 or 3 year term. Savings Plans offers significant savings over On Demand usage, just like Reserved Instances, but automatically reduces your bills on compute usage across any AWS region, even as usage changes.

For members and customers who buy their AWS thru us, we will be assessing your usage and making recommendations for how best to take advantage of this new facility. For anyone else, I strongly suggest doing this analysis yourselves, even if you already make use of Reserved Instances (RIs).

Savings Plans look to give much greater flexibility than RIs in the way they can be applied, particularly from the perspective of moving workloads between EC2 and Fargate.

Working with the Warwick Employment Group

The Cloud Solutions team in Jisc works with a variety of members and customers from across education and the wider public- and third- sectors on a variety of projects and activities. For many, our primary focus is to help them with the strategic planning for their IT infrastructure, particularly as it relates to cloud adoption (obviously!). What are the pros and cons of moving to the cloud? How does the TCO compare to on-prem? How ready are they to move? Where are they with their digital transformation? What does their infrastructure roadmap look like? That kind of thing.

For others, the strategic decisions have already been made. What they need is practical help in the form of professional services and/or managed services, typically focusing on architecting new services in the cloud, re-architecting existing applications to take advantages of the new functionality offered by the cloud, or, in a few cases, simply migrating services to the cloud pretty much as they are.

Over the next few months, we’ll share some of the work we have been doing with members and customers, just to give a flavour of the kinds of areas we can help with.

One such customer is the Warwick Employment Group (part of Warwick University Services Limited) who are responsible for Jobs.ac.uk, the leading international job board for careers in academic, research, science and related professions. The Jobs.ac.uk team had been an existing customer of Eduserv for a long time – since well before the public cloud as we know it today became available and well before the merger between Jisc and Eduserv was first mooted. Back in early 2017 they came to us wanting to gain greater agility in the way their service was delivered, better resilience against server failures and the ability to think about taking their services to a much wider audience.

As far as I recall, they already had Amazon Web Services (AWS) in mind. We talked to them about the benefits they would gain from re-architecting their services on AWS and did some analysis of what their likely costs would be. A migration project was agreed. I doubt that we told them at the time but they were the second AWS customer that we did any significant re-architecting for (after Bristol City Council for whom, at the time, we had just completed a migration of their website to AWS).

As with all our cloud projects, we adopted an infrastructure as code approach from the ground up, using CloudFormation to capture the deployments and designing an AWS account and Virtual Private Cloud (VPC) structure in line with UK Government OFFICIAL guidance and AWS best practice. We took their database layer into the Amazon Relational Database Service (RDS) and used multiple Availability Zones to provide much greater resilience than had previously been possible in the Eduserv data centre.

One of the features of the Jobs.ac.uk service is the large numbers of email messages that get sent out – that is their primary job alerting mechanism. The volume of emails required the use of the Amazon Simple Email Service (SES) – our first experience with that service. As a well-known public-facing service, we have also had to work hard to keep the service secure.

I’m pleased to say that we continue to work closely with the Jobs.ac.uk team, now as Jisc Cloud Solutions rather than Eduserv, providing them with a mix of ongoing managed service (patching, backups, etc.) as well as professional services and advice where they need it.

Digital Economics

This week I presented at the UCISA IG19 conference about ‘Quantifying the value and cost of cloud’, a session to support your digital strategy, increase your financial knowledge and understand the value-based business case. I also introduced ‘digital economics’; seeing the bigger picture of how technology can enable businesses transform, not just cut costs but grow new revenues, increase customer excellence and create new products and services. The term digital economics is fairly new. Gartner are using it, others are calling it the value proposition. So maybe you heard it here first! Read on to find out more.

Technology is solving business problems and enabling business transformation, it isn’t technology for technology’s sake. Digital transformation is leading the adoption of cloud, cloud alone isn’t digital transformation. I got into the conversations about cloud a few years ago, by learning about cloud economics to support customers with the business case of moving to cloud, explaining the capex to opex shift and total cost of ownership (TCO) model. Whilst these are still important factors when changing IT models, the fact remains that using cloud compared with running an on-premise datacentre is not like for like. There are limitations in the TCO model plus that is just the first step of migration, next you optimize through right sizing, reserved instances, storage optimization, etc and go serverless to really reduce costs.

The conversation moves up to the value proposition which involves better resiliency, efficiency and being able to focus on value-add instead of keeping the lights on. Importantly by supporting the technology with the right culture, an organization will gain the ability to quickly deploy enabling innovation, agility and pace to market just to name a few, but the conversation doesn’t stop there.

Now the conversation has gone further, to the strategic outcomes. Cloud enables future technologies like AI and ML which opens new opportunities from data, creating business intelligence which can help companies get closer to their customers, understand trends and respond quicker to the market. To remain relevant and be a market leader this is key. Having an innovative culture means you can release new products and services quicker and ultimately grow revenues. So we are no longer just talking about changing cost models, we are talking about business transformation, customer experience and growing revenues. This is digital economics.

This is shown in the following chart, an upside-down triangle illustrating that the strategic outcomes outweigh the cost.

How to approach this? Always start with why; address the purpose and ensure the business strategy and objectives lead with the technology strategy aligned. Think big, strategically with a digital strategy aligned to the business strategy driven by business outcomes. With exec sponsorship this clear vision will underpin decision making across the organisation. Start small to get users onboard with the change, look to do ‘lighthouse’ projects. Learn fast underpinned with a culture embracing experimentation, accepting failure to fail fast, learn fast and ultimately increase innovation. Then iterate, transformation is continuous, so lots of small changes frequently deployed as this keeps up the fast pace and limits the impact.

Is your organisation on this journey? Many are embracing digital transformation and business transformation. Others aren’t and failing. Higher Education has some different opportunities and challenges to private sector, however many principles still apply. By getting closer to your students, having insightful data and getting to understand their needs, could result in being their chosen provider of lifelong learning, not just an initial degree. This increases the value from that initial relationship.

Education 4.0 is all about embracing technology in the future of learning, an area changing as a result of technology and student expectations. For the sector the challenge is to future-proof as it isn’t immune to disruption. In the USA Udacity has entered the online education market with no campus, is gaining thousands of students and already boasts 80,000+ graduates. With student fees so high, students will be looking for alternatives. The opportunity is to gain lifetime access to the students to be their provider of lifelong learning, therefore increasing their overall value.

What does success look like for your organisation? Suggestions would be collaboration, speed to market, doing things differently, great customer and user experience, business intelligence from data insight, business transformation, continuous iteration and being future ready. And don’t forget to mention digital economics – you heard it here first!

HE top tips from our experts: improving student experience and optimising service delivery with Cloud

Our Jisc Cloud Solutions consultants, Lyn Rees and Paul Ross, have gathered their top recommendations for Higher Education institutions that want to make the best out of student experience and shape a more effective service delivery by using Cloud technologies.

Improving Student Experience

The digital landscape is continually offering new technologies to improve our lives, and that is no different in the HE student arena. The students themselves are becoming more and more demanding in regards to universities’ digital capabilities and services as they themselves are becoming ever more connected.

  • The ever-evolving expectations of digitally native students – from mobility to high resolution streaming content, means that public cloud services are well positioned to serve their needs.
  • When it comes to security, students have high expectations of their institutions. Capable anti-phishing protection is increasingly expected, particularly among more vulnerable students such as those where English is not their first language.
  • Student demand for ubiquitous digital services is on the rise, with an expectation of 24 by 7 access on the go from their mobile devices – demands easily met by cloud solutions.  They value unified calendaring and timetabling capabilities and one-stop access via mobile apps.
  • Whilst the students of today may be considered digitally native, there is still a great deal of value in providing training and guidance to enable them to make the most of digital tools and services, fostering efficient, safe and collaborative practices.
  • Paper driven processes belong in the last century!
  • There’s an ever-greater demand for lecture capture and blended learning capabilities from students across the sector. Cloud SaaS based offerings have lowered the barriers of entry to these platforms, enabling institutions to quickly establish cost-effective services which can scale with demand.

Optimising Service Delivery

HE leaders working in the digital space are not only looking outward in terms of student experience, but also inward, especially on how they can make internal processes faster and more seamless. From culture change to lowering costs, here’s our thoughts on how you can tackle some of your institution’s digitisation challenges.

Know Your Cloud Environment

  • Track return on investment by incorporating feedback loops to measure the success of new applications and services as they are consumed by users
  • Commit to this approach and incorporate it into your business case.
  • Leverage the capabilities that cloud technology offers to analyse operational metrics and visualise your services through dashboards and rich periodic reporting.
  • Make data-driven decisions to optimise your cloud infrastructure and services

Improving Productivity

  • As your team’s experience and confidence of managing cloud technology grows, consider leveraging automation to make deployments more robust, speed up new projects, and reduce the chance of human error by reducing repetitive manual tasks.
  • Embrace commodity cloud services where possible and focus resources where they can deliver the most value.
  • Make the most of the software, systems and licencing you already own e.g. Office 365 or Google G Suite.

Culture

  • Is cloud fully understood in terms of the use cases, productivity and digital innovations? Make time for experimentation and learning and ensure investment in staff skills.
  • Develop a culture that recognises cloud as the primary vehicle for building digital capabilities.  However, this approach needs to be pragmatic; it must be based in reality and acknowledge the realities of the existing environment.
  • Everybody wants to be more agile; but not every organisation can operate like a cloud-first lean start-up.  If you’re not developing apps and services from the ground up, you can still adopt agile approaches – take a ‘fail fast’ approach by measuring user feedback and always look to deliver incremental and valuable gains.

Lowering Costs

  • Only build where you are confident you can deliver return on investment.  Careful thought is required here; you don’t want to start building up technical debt.
  • Design for the cloud, instead of ‘lift n shift’.  If you are doing the latter, make sure you’re aware of the risks and come up with a plan to optimise.
  • Public cloud gives smaller colleges and institutions an upper hand when resourcing or budgets are limited.

You can find more of these recommendations and insights on our ‘Digital leadership in HE’ report we published with ucisa earlier this year. If you are interested in learning more about new technologies for improving student experience and making your business operations more effective, watch our webinar ‘What will the campus of the future look like?’.

Jisc Cloud Solutions NEWS : new G-Cloud services

G-Cloud is a lightweight procurement option for the public sector, created initially in 2012 by the Government Digital Service (GDS) but now owned and managed by Crown Commercial Service (CCS) and entering its 11th iteration. Its original intention remains: to provide an agile and easy to use procurement route for organisations in the wider UK public sector that want to buy cloud services in line with the Government Cloud First policy.

Although primarily targeted at central and local government, G-Cloud can also be used by other ‘public’ bodies including those in the third sector and in education. As a result, it is increasingly being recognised as an easy way to buy cloud services by universities and colleges.

At G-Cloud 10, Jisc listed a single service – GovRoam. The merger with Eduserv brought another 16 G-Cloud services into the Jisc fold and we have now submitted our new combined set of services to G-Cloud 11 – the latest iteration of G-Cloud, which went live on July 2.

Jisc is a trusted technology advisor and ally of the education, public and third sectors. We provide best-in-class technology advice, engineering and support and work as part of your team to transfer knowledge at every step. As a not-for-profit, we can be an allied technology partner and reinvest any profits back into the communities we earn them in.

We see public cloud technology as a key enabler of a digital revolution in the sectors we serve. Our consultants, architects, engineers, developers and support staff are the best at what they do and dedicated to delivering the best service possible whilst also transferring their knowledge and skills to our customers.

Together our services provide a full suite to support your use of cloud services from start to finish. They can be taken in sequence to support your entire cloud journey, or selected as needed to enhance just those parts of your programme where you need support.

Below is a brief overview of the services we offer on G-Cloud 11:
Advise
• Cloud Architectural Review – advice on optimisation, cost control, performance enhancements, security improvements and service resilience
• Cloud Strategy & Roadmap – assess your IT estate and operating model before setting out a strategy for public cloud adoption

Design
• Cloud Design & Deployment – develop high-level and low-level designs for your use of public cloud

Deliver
• Cloud Migration – technical and project management expertise to move your services to public cloud
• Office 365 Migration – consultancy and implementation expertise to support application migration from an on-premise model to a SaaS model

Support
• Managed AWS – a highly reliable, scalable, low-cost infrastructure platform in the cloud
• Managed Azure – a highly reliable, scalable, low-cost infrastructure platform in the cloud
• Managed Database – the day-to-day running, maintenance and backup of your databases
• Managed Office 365 – management, support and advice to drive and optimise your use
• Managed Website Protection – DDoS mitigation and Web Application Firewall protection for your public-facing websites
• Disaster Recovery as a Service – a managed service offering monitoring and management of your disaster recovery environment.

At every step of every engagement we aim to transfer our knowledge and skills to you because, by doing so, we will have a greater impact on society and become trusted and long-term allies. Our ultimate intention with all our services is to empower our members, public and third sector organisations to become digitally independent.
Our services can be found on the digital marketplace here.
For more information, please speak to your account manager or email cloud@jisc.ac.uk

Avoiding vendor lock-in with containers

One of the common concerns around using public cloud is supplier lock-in. There is a worry about being trapped with a cloud vendor once you move your services to the cloud due to the time and money invested during the migration, which would be lost if you had to re-architect and migrate your infrastructure onto a new platform.
However, if you decide to use containers, cloud-hosted data and applications can become significantly more portable, helping to elevate some of these concerns.

What are containers?
A container is a way of packaging up code and all its dependencies so that an application runs quickly and reliably from one computing environment to another. In short, a container allows an application to be packaged and isolated from the IT environment it is stored in.

A good way to picture this is by analogy to physical shipping containers: the items inside the containers are isolated from where they are stored (the ship), and from the items in other containers, and the container itself follows a set of standardised sizes, enabling them to be used on any other shipping container across the world.

Container platforms are provided by third-party companies who are agnostic to the cloud platforms, so your developers will need to become familiar with deploying to your chosen container platform.

Key benefits of containers
1.Portability of information
The major benefit of using containers is the portability they enable. Since the application in the container is isolated from the environment it is stored in, you are able to move the container to other locations knowing that your applications will work in the same way without modification. In effect, this helps mitigate the worry of supplier lock-in for many, giving users the option to switch cloud providers without having to worry about losing all the work done to build and migrate your IT infrastructure.
Let us say you deploy your applications using containers on a public cloud platform, such as AWS, and you decide to make the switch to Azure. The only work needed from you is moving the containers, as there will be no need to reconfigure what is inside them.

2.A new approach to storing data
A second benefit is how containers encourage microservice architectures. When hosting monolithic applications, the method in the past has been to store it the whole application on one or two larger VMs. With a microservice approach, these big applications are unbundled into component pieces, which can then be deployed individually as containers, allowing the different pieces to talk to each other, typically using HTTP.
This approach allows you to be more agile because of the ability to update each component part separately. It also allows you to get much more reuse of the individual components for other services. For example, a component as part of your revenue and benefits application can be reused as part of your social care management platform. This reuse can lead to you having to pay less and do less development.
One thing to bear in mind is that this microservice approach works well when you are building and developing your own applications, as you can make the choice to use this microservice architecture. However, where you are buying pre-built applications from a third-party vendor, it will depend on if they have adopted a container approach for that application.

What to do next
As you can see, containers offer a wide variety of benefits that are more than likely to be relevant to your organisation. Where you are developing applications in-house using your own development team, it is worth considering the container approach going forward.

You might also consider taking the following actions:

Look where your application vendors are in terms of supporting containers
Review what skills you have in-house to use and deploy to containers and begin to upskill in your chosen container platform
Find out where different cloud providers are with their container platforms
There are tools starting to appear that look at your legacy estate and attempt to convert them to a container approach. It is still fairly early days for these tools, but they are worth keeping an eye on.

Posted by Andy Powell.
Andy has over 30 years IT experience in a wide range of roles including networking, system administration, software development, website/digital delivery, IT strategy, solutions architecture and national & international policy advice. He is a strong technical writer and experienced communicator and has spoken at conferences and events all over the world.

Andy is CTO at Jisc.

Moving away from ‘lift and shift’

Lift ‘n Shift, Hybrid or In-flight Transformation, which cloud migration is correct?

When working across the public sector, with organisations broadly in the same ‘business’, it’s hard not to think that it would be here, if anywhere, that a ‘one size fit’s all’ approach would apply to technology. Surely, they are providing similar services, within the same framework of legislation and policy and therefore they would have the same needs?

To some extent this is true, and there are technology vendors that have capitalised on that commonality. For example, the software for revenue and benefits, which is in use across the local authority sector. Equally since the public cloud native expectation by central government indicates that those familiar with the sector understand there is a benefit that can be felt by all.

However, even if providing broadly the same services, our experiences show us that no two organisations are the same. They will have invested significantly in different applications and infrastructure over the years, have an array of different contractual arrangements to honor. Perhaps, most importantly, there will be cultural and skills differences between one organisation and the next. Therefore, a project to transform will always be from a different starting point.

The roadmap that any CIO builds needs to be underpinned by an understanding of all of these nuances:

1. Know what you have.
This can be the hardest part but I cannot emphasis enough how important it is. A solid discovery of applications, infrastructure, skills and culture will lay the foundations for well-considered change. You can’t know how to get to your goal if you don’t know where you are starting from.

2. Understand upfront what responsibilities are yours, and take ownership of them, and what are your suppliers/partners.
For example, will they conduct a discovery exercise for you or do you need to provide a list of applications and where they are currently housed? A lack of clarity in this area can slow projects to a snail’s pace and waste time and money.

3. Know where you want to get to and by when, with key milestones along the way.
For a detailed plan to be built the discover piece will need to come first, however you should have a broad vision of the goals of change with senior stakeholder buy-in from the get go.

4. Think about how you are going to make existing assets work.
Without overly compromising the end vision. You’ll need a plan that brings existing asset to end of life at a good pace, whilst ‘sweating’ the value. It’s also important to realise from the start that not all applications will be able to be cloud hosted, and therefore there may need to be a longer roadmap for those assets.

5. Find quick wins.
However smooth a path, transformation will cause disruption. You will break things and you need to take the workforce with you on that journey. Quick wins such as Office 365 implementation, that are broad reaching and easy to see benefit from will help to win buy-in for further change. This can be seen as a “gateway application” to the cloud and instill confidence in your organisation that you’re on the right path

In the current technology and broader social political landscape it seems that there is nothing more constant than change. Public sector organisations, just like their private sector counterparts, need to be always looking to the next challenge and finding the right tools to enable better outcomes.

Our research and experience shows us that the public sector is lagging behind in technology adoption. This is a concern because PSOs have an even greater need to do more with less and wring the most out of every pound spent. That’s why we exist – to help close that gap.

Colm Blake

Colm is a Solutions Consultant with many years wide ranging experience within the IT industry. Whilst working on a large scale public sector project he worked on a cloud deployment and was instantly convinced that this was the future of our industry and promptly changed career path. At Jisc he works closely with our members and local authorities to clearly understand their needs and ensure that the platform produced will provide a cost effective and resilient service.

RCUK Cloud for Research Workshop – January 2018

 

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The RCUK Cloud Working Group are hosting their 3rd annual workshop at the Francis Crick Institute in London on January 8th 2018.

This event will bring together researchers and technical specialists to share expertise in the application of cloud computing technology for the research community.

The meeting will include presentations from a range of research domains including particle physics, astronomy, the environmental sciences, medical research and bioinformatics.

 

To register for this free event, please visit: http://bit.ly/rcuk-cloud-workshop2018-reg

The working group also welcomes submissions for talks, posters or proposals for breakout sessions.

Key themes

This workshop will focus on key areas to address in order for the potential of cloud computing for research to be fully realised:

  • Tackling technical challenges around the use of cloud: for example, porting legacy workloads, scenarios for hybrid cloud, moving large data volumes, use of object storage vs. POSIX file systems.
  • Cloud as enabler for new and novel applications: e.g. use of public cloud toolkits and services around Machine Learning, AI, use of FPGAs and GPU based systems, applications related to Internet of Things and Edge Computing
  • Perspectives from European and international collaborations and research programmes
  • Policy, legal, regulatory and ethical issues, models for funding – case studies for managing sensitive or personal data in the cloud
  • Addressing the skills gap: how to educate researchers in how to best take advantage of cloud; DevOps and ResOps