Monthly Archives: August 2013

It's not as difficult as you think.

Computers, Clouds, Data Centres, WAN and all that Jazz

Whatever your thoughts on computing and all that goes with it, it’s receiving close attention at this point in time, partly because of the Cadastre and SAP, but mainly because of FTP and the desire for more to be done by computers so that we run a more efficient government. So this is a post about what all these different bits are (Yes I know that some of you will know this already) and why you should be keeping your eyes peeled for all that jazz over the coming months.

By the way, I was asked a question about the cadastre computer failure recently by a reporter from the Guernsey Press and I noticed how difficult it is to explain all of this to non computer geeks, so here we go.

Lets start with the assumption that you know what a computer is (I take it that you’ve either got one or know how to use one if you’re reading this). A computer is fine, but when you have an office environment with lots of sensitive information (that for some reason we refer to as data), there’s two things that you need to do. Connect all the computers so they can talk to each other and store the data safely.

Computers have a nasty habit of dying on you just at the most inconvenient time (as though there were such a thing as a convenient time for this to happen), so we store the data on servers. Servers are basically a super computer designed to hold lots of data.

Given that servers are just computers, albeit super computers, they also have a habit of dying every now and then. This is why we backup our servers. Backup is a fairly simple process where all the data on one server is copied to another server or disk on a regular basis (usually overnight as it tends to slow down the servers).

Now at some point or other, someone thought that if you connected all the servers together life would be better, as the servers would all communicate with each other and we’d hate servers to have a silo mentality. When you have a lot of servers together it’s called a data centre, for what I would hope are rather obvious reasons. Running a data centre is pretty important work; all the servers will want a very stable electricity supply with no spikes or power outages; all the servers tend to produce a lot of heat, which is bad for servers, so the room will need to be kept at a certain cool temperature; as though that wasn’t enough each server needs attention with updates and fixes that are called patches.

At this point I don’t blame you for being tired of the jargon, those who work with IT love their jargon as much as any other trade, it tends to make them feel separate and more knowledgeable than others, but it’s just jargon. Bear with it.

I think that you’re beginning to see the trend here in IT. You start with one computer, then you connect a lot of them together, then you connect them to a server, then you connect a lot of servers together. Yes, the next logical step is to put lots of data centres together in the same room, and that is what happened, but because no one organisation would want to do that on their own, it’s large computer companies that do it and this is what we call the cloud.

What is the cloud and why do people talk about it so much? We’ve all come across cloud technology by now, how many of us use apple iTunes Match, where all of our music is stored in the cloud. Microsoft sky drive is a way of storing our documents in the cloud. it means that we can access our information from any computer as long as there’s an internet connection.

Now imagine that the Cadastre were to store their data in the cloud instead of a data centre in Sir Charles Frossard House, not a lot of difference I hear you say, well no not really, not for the user. But there is a big difference for the IT department.

Servers need all that maintenance, patches, steady electricity, cooling, upgrading; and all of this requires someone to work in the IT department doing it. But it’s not that interesting and maintenance isn’t a high priority when you have exciting new projects, like SAP, that take up a lot of your IT department’s time. And I can’t blame the IT department for focussing on SAP, this is a big project that needs a lot of work and attention and it will also give us large benefits. But then servers aren’t a fine French wine, they don’t improve with age and eventually something breaks.

Cloud technology allows us to forget about all of that maintenance dullness, it allows departments and companies to concentrate on the things that are important for them. This is where world IT is going now, so why are the States of Guernsey not going there.

Before you think that the States of Guernsey are just luddites in this respect, there are a couple of things to think about. When we have a data centre, we know exactly where it is, but does anyone know where your iTunes match data physically is? Where in the world is the server with your Microsoft Sky Drive? This is an important question because if important government information sits in another country, it’s not the best idea, as well as potentially being illegal. I know that Microsoft’s european data centres are in Dublin and Amsterdam, neither of which I’d like to have my tax information. Apple has it’s european cloud in Luxembourg and as pleasant as Luxembourg is, I’m not sure that I’d want all that information sitting inside the EU (they do have a habit of prying into information that isn’t theirs). EU government’s could also demand, through their courts, for these companies to disclose all the data that they store on their servers and I most certainly don’t want my electronic census data being disclosed in an uncontrolled way to some nosy parker EU government.

But we do have local cloud providers, Calligo, Itex and others (as the BBC would say, other providers are available) who have their cloud computers sitting in Guernsey and Jersey, and as such, are the logical option for us to start thinking about cloud computing.

Computing is getting more and more complicated, and as it does so, the basics still need to be done. Any company that’s still doing the basics really would have to ask themselves, by now, why? It’s time the States of Guernsey did the same.

My first suggestion would be to think about the exact issue that caused the loss of data at the Cadastre. Currently the States of Guernsey are backing up their servers onto tape. To say that this is a little old fashioned is a little like saying that betamax is on its way out. What we should be thinking about is backing up data to the cloud, but that’s not even on the radar yet, only to replace tape back up with more computers. Personally I think that this is a little like moving from betamax to VHS just as the world is moving into digital downloads.

Finally there’s WAN (Wide Area Network). This is easily explained as the electronic pipes that connect all the computers of the States of Guernsey together, from the King Edward Hospital to the Tourist Information Centre on the front. From St Sampson High School to Sir Charles Frossard House. The best way to think of this is that we rent the pipe from a telecom company (currently JT) to use it. But the bigger the pipe, the more you pay for it, therefore the pipe from the PEH to Sir Charles Frossard House (because of the number of people) will be bigger than the pipe from the cadastre office. But if the data sits in the cloud, we don’t need a big fat pipe between the offices, all we need is an internet connection, and we all know that Commerce and Employment are working hard at the moment to bring those costs down. Indeed Commerce and Employment are working hard to facilitate cloud service providers on the island, so why aren’t we, as the States of Guernsey, taking advantage of this work?

Civil Service Accountability

Some will know that I’ve recently written, and am leading, a requête titled “Clarification of the Responsibility and Accountability of the Civil Service to the Political Boards and Committees”. I’m rather sure that the first reaction of most people having read the title is “why should I care?”. If not, the reaction may well be “how dull”. So I’m writing a blog to say why it’s not dull and you should care (though I won’t pretend that it’s easy).

Lets start by looking at our current system of government known as consensus government. What does it mean? Well in essence, every department is a committee of five deputies that make the political decisions. This is different from executive government, such as they have in Jersey and the UK (and the Guernsey Press wishes we had here), where individuals are given responsibility for their department and form the executive (that then acts as a cabinet in the UK or council of ministers in Jersey).

Next I’ll talk about the Civil Service. Effectively it’s the body of people that carry out the will of the political establishment. No one would disagree with that statement in the UK, but here in Guernsey we frequently find that civil servants have much more power and ability to effect change. Why is that? Well it’s mainly because we don’t have political parties. When I’m elected I don’t have a political party that I’m a part of with a manifesto that I must deliver. I don’t have a majority of members who’ll always vote with me to deliver that manifesto, therefore civil servants in Guernsey bring forward ideas and policies for the politicians to consider in a way that would be unimaginable in the UK. This isn’t necessarily all bad, because I don’t have a party that I’m part of, I don’t have political think tanks that have considered the delivery and change of service, I don’t have policy formation within a party set up, therefore the civil service have filled this void. There are good examples of this and bad examples and I don’t disagree with the civil service doing this in many respects as the ideas need to be approved by the politicians to be progressed.

So given this happy arrangement, why do I think there’s a sufficient problem to raise a requête and face the horror of the Policy Council, Treasury and Resource Department and the Guernsey Press?

The problem is simple. In our system of Government, as a member of a department (HSSD in my case) I’m held responsible for the delivery of service within that department. How is it therefore that I have no say into the appointment of the most senior civil servant of that department, the Chief Officer? How is it that I’m not involved in determining how effective the Chief Officer has been in delivering what we, as the politicians, have deemed it necessary for him or her to deliver? I can ask for something to be done, for something to be stopped and something new to be offered, but the only person that can give the Chief Officer an appraisal is another civil servant. If I ask for something to be done and it isn’t, that means nothing as long as the civil service are happy with their own work. Is that your understanding of government?

When I was elected I expected to set the direction, make decisions and be held accountable for them. For better or worse, I’m the one that you can phone, email, tweet, talk to in person or (yes it does still happen) send a letter to, complaining or complimenting me on my action (more compliments would be welcomed by the way). My name and contact details are freely available in the front of the phone book, on the government website and a whole host of other places so that you, dear electorate, can give me a piece of your mind (and you frequently do).

But how can I be held fully accountable if I’m not fully in control?

I’m not asking for some silly system of patronage where I’d be appointing a friend, indeed, given that I’m only one of five in the committee of the department, I don’t see how such nepotism would be possible (believe me when I say that not all five members of the department agree with each other all the time). But I am asking for us to have an input.

Why would you trust me on this issue? Well strangely enough, just after I published, signed and delivered my requête the UK cabinet office published a report asking for exactly the same system that I propose. If they have an executive government, how much more appropriate is the same system for a consensus government.

Given all the above I’d also like to clarify a few things:

  • I’m not harking back to some golden era, this was never the practice before in Guernsey and it would be a bold move to undertake.
  • This is similar to what is already done in
    • France,
    • The United States of America,
    • New Zealand,
    • Austria
    • and a whole host of other countries.
  • This wouldn’t scupper existing initiatives as we’re all bound by the resolutions of the States of Deliberation.

Sorry to dispel the myths promulgated by the opinion column of the Guernsey Press.

Why should you care? Simply put, do you want a government by deputies or by civil servants? If it’s the latter, sleep easy; if it’s the former, lobby your deputy now the contact details are as above.

So how interesting was that? I suppose it’s as interesting as I can make it. Yes I suppose you can complain that deputies are once again concerned with themselves to some degree, but I’d also suggest that this is also a concern for you. If you voted, aren’t you expecting your deputies to be responsible? If you didn’t vote, don’t you expect your deputies to be responsible?

Let me finish by stating that I make no judgement on the quality of our civil service here in Guernsey, it is like any other company or body of workers, some are excellent, a lot are good, some are questionable in their ability. I’m not bringing a requête to attack them, simply clarify their responsibilities and reporting lines.

Whatever your opinion, leave your feedback below. I know that I’ll read it and take account of it. I’m not sure that the civil service would have to and I’m not sure that it’s their job, but I know that it is mine.