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IT services procurement: Could G-Cloud be the answer Europe is looking for?

PICSE on Computerweekly, September 2015

With European public sector organisations looking to overhaul how they buy IT, some are wondering if the UK's G-Cloud model could be the answer they are looking for

Anyone reading the British press would be left with the impression the UK is, at best, a half-hearted member of the European community and, at worst, positively at odds with its continental neighbours.

While it’s true to say there are some areas of disagreement, there are commercial areas where the UK is not only fully engaged, but actively leading the field.


Cloud computing is one area where British expertise is really showing the way. Take the UK government’s G-Cloud project, which is currently attracting a good deal of interest across Europe, as an example of how public sector procurement can be done differently and more efficiently.

Public sector procurement is a key component of the European Cloud Computing Strategy, launched by former European Union (EU) commissioner Neelie Kroes in 2012.

Speaking at the time of the launch, she said: “Public IT procurement is about 20% of the market, but today it is fragmented with limited impact.

“We can harness this buying power through more harmonisation and integration and through joint public procurement across borders. It is a true win-win: The cloud market will grow, bringing opportunities for existing suppliers and new entrants; and cloud buyers, including the public sector, will buy more with less and become more efficient,” she added.

Lack of enthusiasm for cross-border cloud strategy

It’s fair to say there hasn’t been much movement in establishing a common procurement policy across Europe to date.

There’s been no effort to establish a continent-wide cloud-first approach, for example, as the US and UK governments have done, and there’s still much resistance to the idea of European cloud services crossing borders. Some countries, notably Germany, maintain the attitude that IT services should be acquired nationally – and that philosophy remains a barrier.

However, the UK G-Cloud approach remains a model that demonstrates how public cloud procurement could be enabled in the future, and some organisations are already looking to it for inspiration.

Bob Jones is head of Helix Nebula – the European Science Cloud initiative which aims to establish a Europe-wide cloud infrastructure – and is grateful for guidance from G-Cloud about how the organisation should approach procurement.

“The G-Cloud has helped. We were keen to learn from G-Cloud as it’s difficult to find something that’s so well developed in other EU member states,” says Jones.

The EU has also set up the Procurement Innovation for Cloud Services in Europe (PICSE) to advise public sector bodies. According to Strategic Blue CEO James Mitchell, a PICSE consultant, the organisation is also looking to advise small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Jones says PICSE was set up to look at how cloud is procured, particularly by public bodies and research organisations, as there is an issue with the procurement processes organisations are legally obliged to go through.

“Research institutes have to go through request for proposal [RFP] processes, which are not designed for buying utility services,” he says.

He points out some problems faced by procurement bodies: “Contracts will have items such as computing services, so instead of writing ‘computing services’, you’re going to write ‘cloud’ – that doesn’t work very well.”

There are accounting issues too. “A server is an asset, with the cost spread over the lifetime of that server – pay as you go doesn’t fit well into this model,” he adds.

Looking ahead

Procurement managers have to look beyond these difficulties and explore new areas. The three partners of PICSE – Cern; the Cloud Security Alliance and Trust-IT Services – want to build on the work carried out by Helix Nebula to help the process along.

Sara Garavelli, project lifecycle strategist and project manager at Trust-IT Services, describes how Helix Nebula demonstrated the suitability of cloud services for public sector organisations, but there were stark differences according to size.

“We observed two different trends. The big EU research organisations are quite aware of what procuring cloud means, but when it comes to small to mid-sized research organisations, many of them have no clue about cloud. They are attracted by the cloud benefits, but they don’t know how to approach the procurement,” she says.

There are many reasons for this reluctance to adopt cloud. “They are put off by interoperability issues with existing systems and by lock-in issues. They don’t have any idea how to run a cloud business case and they don’t know what legal and financial implications cloud brings,” she says.

To aid the procurement process, PICSE has introduced a self-assessment tool, called the Wizard, to help public research organisations better understand the issues with their procurement processes.

According to Garavelli, the Wizard should help research institutes procure services, even if it does have limitations. “Of course, it cannot replace the legal and procurement advice provided by experts, but it could give them with warnings and suggestions on how to deal with the full cloud procurement cycle,” she says.

The tool is designed for IT managers from public research organisations willing to procure significant amounts of cloud services.

Garavelli says there are considerable difficulties faced by these bodies. “Writing cloud tenders is quite a challenging and expensive task for public sector organisations. Cloud skills – technical, legal and financial – must be there to run successful cloud procurement,” she says.

However, organisations can get some financial assistance with this, thanks to two instruments launched by the European Commission (EC): The pre-commercial procurement (PCP) and the public procurement of innovation (PPI) instruments.

“Buyers can receive some funds from the EC to procure innovative cloud services. This is quite clever as the EC is not allowed to fund any commercial procurement, so in this case it’s a good opportunity for these public sector organisations,” says Garavelli, explaining that these financial initiatives are not widely known.

The challenge ahead

There are serious challenges in trying to procure services across Europe, as the multiplicity of different rules and regulations hinder the take-up of cloud. As Garavelli says: “Different EU countries have different regulations and laws. Managing a procurement of this type is really challenging and expensive.”

The UK’s G-Cloud initiative, with its ease of use, offers a good model, but PICSE’s Mitchell admits it has its limitations.

“If you want to deploy infrastructure as a service [IaaS], platform as a service [PaaS] and Salesforce, and try to do that on one RFP, you’ll need someone to put it all together – it’s going to be expensive,” he says.

Nevertheless, there’s a new awareness across Europe that things have to change and cloud services are on the agenda. The EU has put plenty of initiatives in place to help the process along, recognising the barriers in place.

As yet, the UK’s G-Cloud initiative is in a class of its own, but there’s plenty of time for the rest of the continent to catch up.