This year, the government unveiled a sweeping strategy that will see it partner Microsoft in an innovation centre, which, in the near future, will create its own internal “cloud computing” system – such as that used by other EU countries. Minister for IT Dr Gatt was reported to have said: “The goal of the innovation centre is to stimulate a strong ICT skills base in Cloud Computing and the development of Cloud Computing Solutions and Services that can be marketed locally and beyond our shores.”
Malta merits such an investment, having placed first in EU eGovernment Benchmarking in 2010, ranked fifth highest in the percentage of employees with ICT skills in Europe, and fourth among European countries in terms of eSkills activities by the government. The innovative deal is the brainchild of Claudio Grech, CEO of MITA, the same person who for a short while acted as main negotiator on behalf of the government on the multi-million euro residential ICT office complex (SmartCity) being built at Ricasoli by the Gulf Arab corporation Tecom. Visiting MITA’s website one appreciates its three strategic drivers, which are job creation, support of education and development, and technology. When fully functional the Microsoft innovation centre will, in turn, save millions a year in licence fees and pave the way for trained ICT workers in the digital economy.
The key part of the new strategy outlined by Dr Gatt will be a five-year, €26.8 million strategic partnership agreement with Microsoft Corporation, which includes lower enterprise licences, educational initiatives and the setting up of a Microsoft Innovation Centre that will be a pioneer in Cloud Computing.
An official press release states that the target date of completion is next year. Included in the Enterprise Agreement is a provision aimed at trimming the annual licensing fees charged by Microsoft by 12 per cent. This means the island will be using the latest version of Windows 7 and, when fully functional, the civil service using the latest software is expected to boost its productivity and render an improved service to taxpayers. The novel idea of partnering with Microsoft brings in advantages such as free use of office software in schools, benefiting the 28,000 users in state primary and secondary schools, including students, teachers and administration. It is a pity that the digital gap in certain pockets of government administration may not immediately gain from the enhanced mobility and communication and remote management offered.
It takes time to educate workers in ICT technology and will Malta be able to provide these when SmartCity opens its doors for business? Within the next five years, the proverbial ICT harvest will be rich but it is still dubious whether there will be enough field workers to reap it. Imagine, if you can, if the entire island can as from next year start using Cloud computing, availing itself of the latest technology and improving its access time when retrieving / processing data. The government can also push for “open source” software to be used more widely among thousands of central and local government’s desktop computers.
By 2013, the strategy suggests, a majority of central government desktops could be supplied through a “shared utility service” – essentially a cloud service that lets users create documents online for free. Simply put, the move to a “government cloud” mirrors the system used by Google and other large companies, which involves powerful “server” computers in huge data centres to provide computing power on demand that is delivered where it is needed via the internet. Naturally, all this would be provided to government departments and local councils, replacing the ageing traditional systems used in two data centres, which are frequently run far below their capacity since the overload is caused by serving one or two large departments, for example, Inland Revenue or Treasury. Moving to a cloud-based infrastructure could cut costs of government computing significantly and, in an age when we are pressed to cut on emissions (going “green”), it is expected to cut power usage.
The Inland Revenue, for example, is currently seeing a huge demand from users wanting its online tax return system – this creates a bottleneck that peaks in the second quarter of each year and then tails off due to late filing. This problem caused from the onset of peak demand followed by a sheer drop is easily solved when using a cloud-based system shared among departments, as it could deal with such sudden loads while using less power.
But cloud computing is not without it’s Achilles’ heel. As the sudden release of so much data in the cloud brings with it challenges of security and compatibility. Experts recommend that to work with minimum disruption there should be a number of built-in safety factors. These include transparency, incident notifications, data restitution, control and certification, governing laws and strict enforceability. With so much at stake in a cloud-based system, it is imperative that there is a transparent set of standard indicators on service backed by robust backup facilities. The Cloud operator should have the obligation to report in greater detail all reported mishaps as well as the steps taken to contain damage/leakages. This would allow the government or local councils to take all legal precautions required to safeguard their operations. Naturally, to ensure continuation any government should have the absolute guarantee that, at any moment of its choosing, it gets data restitution via a latest backed-up version of data, presented in a standard format.
Moving on the notion of control and certification means a Cloud provider should, ideally, be certified by specialised rating agencies. This is paramount given the vague geography of cloud computing. In this respect, the European Union is well armed to monitor such constraints, as it already does on personal data protection. As always, nothing comes without its benefits and risks. Cloud computing is a new concept and its operation will evolve and flourish among more countries. Still, there are pitfalls when things go wrong and no user need bear the risk of having its service interrupted, data lost or corrupted so tangible measures can be taken to keep secure copies by independent agencies. If hackers gain access to cloud storage, then the government (and local councils) would witness a catastrophe, as the massive concentration of data is an irresistible invitation to hostile hackers. Confidential and sensitive data could be in the hands of an unknown group – a recipe for disaster, possibly blackmail. On a positive note, such data concentration can result in economies of scale that justify the high expenditure to invest in more robust security. The risk increases if Cloud operators are tempted to deploy data centres in less stable but cheaper countries tarred with looser contractual protection policies.
To conclude, it seems that Malta has come of age when it comes to ICT. It will be shortly joining the list of other EU members who have started the exciting road to Cloud computing. Both UK and Ireland are racing ahead. Typically, Ireland has decided to take the plunge in the cloud computing sector and their Minister of Enterprise has established a study group that will look into its implementation in the government and the public sector. The Irish Minister said that by 2014, the cloud computing industry could grow to €9.5 billion and might generate new 8,600 jobs. Malta located on the periphery of southern Europe does not need to suffer from geographical and digital insularity. If the plan works, it looks like the island of the George Cross is on a good wicket.
One augurs that, based on budget incentives, it continues to press ahead with building a digital future for the Maltese.
Mr Mangion is a partner in PKFMALTA, an audit and business advisory firm.