Crown Hosting CEO: ‘We have taken away all the cloud excuses’

PublicTechnology talks to Steve Hall about the framework’s achievements so far, its ambitions for its last year, and the secret to a successful public-private joint venture  

Credit: Crown Hosting Data Centres

“The on-ramp for the cloud”, is how Crown Hosting Data Centres chief executive Steve Hall characterises the role the joint venture plays in the procurement and provision of public-sector IT.

The organisation’s story can be traced back to summer 2014, when the Cabinet Office issued a contract notice seeking a datacentre and co-location services provider to play the role of the majority shareholder in a long-term joint venture with the government. The aim was to establish a four-year framework – expected to be worth up to £700m to the winning bidder – through which public-sector organisations could procure datacentre space. 

Wiltshire-based firm Ark Data Centres was chosen as the government’s hosting partner of choice. With the Cabinet Office taking a minority shareholding, Crown Hosting Data Centres was born three years ago and the Crown Hosting Services framework went live in May 2015.

The procurement vehicle offers public-sector entities the chance to procure datacentre space on contracts ranging from one year up to a maximum length of five years – plus two optional one-year extensions. The set-up – in which the space has, effectively, been bulk bought upfront by the Cabinet Office – is designed to offer all customers the same advantageous rates, even if they only use the service to host a small amount of data for a short length of time.

This, the government claims, will create hundreds of millions of pounds of direct and indirect cost savings for the public sector over the lifetime of the framework, and beyond.

On top of which, Crown Hosting claims to offer market-leading levels of energy-efficiency and security, with assurance offered by advisors from the National Cyber Security Centre.

The overarching goal is to give Whitehall and the wider public sector a means to break out of long-term outsourcing deals and begin moving towards a world of cloud computing and best-of-breed technology. Crown Hosting’s website advises potential customers that taking advantage of the organisation’s co-location services will allow them to “move legacy now, and evolve to the cloud when you are ready”.

With a year left to run on the framework’s initial four-year term, PublicTechnology caught up with Crown Hosting chief executive Steve Hall (pictured above) to find out more about the organisation’s work so far, and its ambitions for the coming 12 months.

PublicTechnology: How did you conceive of Crown Hosting’s remit when it was launched?
Steve Hall: When Crown Hosting came to market I had quite a clear vision for what I wanted the capability to be, and where it sat in the overall government cloud-first strategy. I think there was a growing misconception that you could go straight from your legacy environment, sprinkle a bit of magic dust, and go straight into cloud and make the big digital transition. I saw this framework as delivering that missing piece of the jigsaw, and giving people the on-ramp for getting to the cloud. It allows customers to start their transformation to the cloud. It has assured security, and a very clear pricing structure – which is significantly below what you could get [elsewhere] in the market. 

How has this remit changed and developed?
It was seen as the place where you could put legacy kit if you couldn’t go anywhere else. I do not think that is how it is used now though. Technology has moved on, thinking has moved on. Most people now are using it as [part of] a hybrid environment and in delivering a hybrid strategy.

We are not in opposition to the public cloud companies – we are complementary to them

What types of programs or data are people putting into your datacentres?
The honest answer is I don’t know. We provide the data-hosting element, but it is, essentially, their space. We are completely neutral on the equipment vendors and managed services providers [our customers work with] – we just provide the space.

Can you cite any customers, and how they have benefited?
[We offer] that ability to break up those old legacy contracts without being held hostage. DWP, which has a large IT estate, are a big adopter – that has been an enormously successful programme for them. But it is not just large central government departments, we have some police customers, we have health, education – pretty much across the public sector. Derby City Council has seen they have been able to migrate [some of] their applications to a cloud provider and put the rest with us.

Are there any areas of the public sector where you feel you could do more work?
To be honest, we could grow significantly in all those areas.  We haven’t yet really broken into the NHS trusts. I think the problem has been getting focus on it – it is not necessarily at the top of their in-tray. That tends to be the issue – where is the drive going to come from, to make the project happen?

Seven years
Maximum length of call-off contracts available through the framework

Estimated possible value of the framework over its four-year term

Department for Work and Pensions, Home Office, and Highways Agency
Three customers with which Crown Hosting Services launched in 2015

Minimum guaranteed uptime – in line with the datacentres’ Tier III certification

Number of shares in Crown Hosting Data Centres Ltd held by the Cabinet Office – with Ark Data Centres holding the remaining 749

For public-sector customers, what might you offer that is better or different to the likes of AWS, Google, Microsoft and others?
We are not in opposition to them, we are complementary to them. It is very much the case of [customers using] the right tool, at the right time, in the right place. We are not trying to compete against the cloud companies – we have two different offerings. We see ourselves as complementary – that is how DWP have used us. They had a big outsourced IT contact for a long time, and we have really helped them move towards the cloud.

Coming up for three years since Crown Hosting launched, have you achieved what you expected or hoped to?
I think it has achieved more than we expected, in terms of facilitating transformation, and certainly around the direct and indirect savings we have created. We have also achieved a lot in creating a joint venture with government that has been very successful – there have not been that many of those. 

Why has this joint venture succeeded, where so many others have failed?
It is a bit like getting married – just because you have a certificate that says you’re married, that does not mean it will work out. I think both parties, right from the start – and the start, in this case, being the procurement process – have to work hard and establish how they’re going to behave with each other, and how it is going to work.  I do not think any party has a dominant position, and neither feels like it has got the raw end of the deal. The framework was structured in a very sound manner.

In March 2017 responsibility for the framework was moved from the Government Digital Service to the Crown Commercial Service. Why was this?
I think GDS was the right place for the procurement to be generated from – it was the missing piece of the jigsaw for providing tools for organisations to transform themselves in line with their cloud-first policy, and it sat well with GDS at that time. Once it was up and running, the nature of the engagement with customers, the integration with other frameworks, and the alignment with the strategy that CCS is evolving, made us much more natural bedfellows with CCS. It has just helped continue the good start that we had under GDS. It has been great working with (CCS chief executive) Malcolm Harrison and his team. 

There was a growing misconception that you could go straight from your legacy environment, sprinkle a bit of magic dust, and go straight into cloud, and make the big digital transition

Where do you see Crown Hosting Services fitting in with other government IT frameworks and the wider procurement picture?
I see it as a real underlying framework – it makes everything else possible. We have taken away all the excuses [for not moving to the cloud]. Things like ‘it doesn’t match with my flavour of security’, or ‘it doesn’t meet the cost savings’. We have taken this approach of taking away the excuses so that people can focus on the benefits for their customers. I see it as a pivotal framework for all of the other ones that [CCS] is putting together – it makes them all possible.

The framework ends in a year. Should customers currently considering using it be concerned about what happens once it does?
It is not a cause for concern for them. They can buy off the framework, or extend their engagement, right up to its last day – and that could give them seven years extra. That is plenty of time to sort out their transformation for the cloud world.

What are your priorities for the year ahead?
There are some central departments that we have just started working with, so we will be working to help them. But the number-one [priority] is to further penetrate the police market. There is so much data flying around, and there is a lot that Crown Hosting could do to help them. And we want to do a lot more with the NHS – we could increase their resilience significantly. We deliver a great datacentre service – it is just about getting the message out there.

Sam Trendall

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