By 2015, the UK government wants half of its new IT spending to be on cloud services, as part of its plan to build an “agile, cost-effective and environmentally sustainable” IT estate.

But government progress towards introducing cloud services has been slow, with its Cloud First strategy going unrealised and spending through its CloudStore, a portal where public bodies can buy online services, remaining flat since it launched in February this year.

This sluggish start was perhaps to be expected, given the amount of work the public sector needs to do before the public sector can consider adopting cloud services, a debate at the Efficient ICT 2012 conference in London heard.

That’s because switching to a cloud service isn’t just about swapping one technology for another, it’s about changing a way an organisation operates. For example, a bespoke IT system will cater for the idiosyncratic needs of an organisation, whereas a cloud service is a generic system built for the needs of a mass market.

As such, Dr Mark Thompson, lecturer in Information Systems at Cambridge Judge Business School and ICT Futures advisor to the Cabinet Office warned: “The cloud environment isn’t ready to provide a lot of features of functions that we’ve come to accept.

“It’s useless unless we’ve got a grip of our business models and architecture, and data architecture underlying that, to understand whether we should be using this stuff in the first place.”

Before government bodies can replace IT systems built and maintained by suppliers with off-the-shelf generic cloud services they will likely have to carry out a detailed assessment of organisational structure followed by significant restructuring.

“Cloud isn’t an endgame,” said David Wilde, CIO for Essex County Council, and said realism has “to be bought to bear” as cloud’s commodity nature isn’t suited to delivering every type of service.

Technology is a small proportion of the process he warned, as the cost of change management, of process reengineering is greater.

“The question you have to ask yourself is ‘What’s your appetite?’, ‘What’s your clarity about where you’re going to get to?’ and ‘Are you prepared to make those difficult decisions to get to that end point?’.”

Even once an organisation has decided cloud is the right fit for a particular task and restructured accordingly, there’s still some tricky technical issues to be sorted out. Thompson pointed to the difficulty in dealing with porting problems, complexity and consistency between the old and the new environment.

The size of the upfront investment in time and money when adopting cloud services could help explain the flat spend in the government’s CloudStore.

But even in straitened times where public bodies need to find quick savings Wilde believes government bodies will still invest in the switch to cloud services, given the long term savings on offer.

The government’s transition to cloud services will not only be long and difficult but in many ways is yet to begin in earnest.

Dr Mark Thompson, lecturer in Information Systems at Cambridge Judge Business School and ICT Futures advisor to the Cabinet Office, said while the government’s cloud strategy is “a great step in the right direction, however it’s not the answer”.

Thompson said the whole idea of a “G-cloud” or “CloudStore” of services just for government is contrary to the unspecialised nature of cloud services.

“Cloud means that same, it means utility, we do stuff the same as everyone else therefore we can just consume it.

“Putting G in front of it means we’re going to do everything the same way but we’re going to have a little enclave for government. A government enclave within cloud. [Being] special and not special literally doesn’t make sense.

“It’s a great step on the way forward, it’s highly valuable. It’s a beacon for the future in government procurement but it’s not the same as the relentless commoditisation [I’m referring to] when I’m talking about cloud.”