Having returned from my first global AWS re:Invent conference, I am keen to share the key announcements and themes that I believe will most impact the public sector vertical that I serve. Filtering is no mean feat with the plethora of announcements made during the week!

First Impressions

AWS re:Invent is a learning conference hosted by Amazon Web Services (AWS) for the global cloud computing community. The event features keynote announcements, training and certification opportunities, 2,000+ technical sessions, a partner expo, after-hours events, and so much more.

As well as being my first attendance at AWS re:Invent, it was also my first visit to Las Vegas where the event was hosted. While I’m no stranger to intercontinental business travel, Vegas seemed a pleasant alternative with its winter sun and unique ambience.

My first impression of the week is that of the scale; Vegas seems like the perfect venue to host re:Invent as both hit you with their sheer sense of scale and intensity! For the week AWS takes over Sin City occupying six of the major hotels as conference venues and accommodation, as well as providing dedicated shuttle buses and an army of staff smoothing the flow of 53,000+ attendees between sessions and venues.

Announcements

Storage

Public sector organisations, due to the number of citizens they service, have some of the most challenging demands on storage services.

One of the most significant announcements of the week must be Amazon Glacier Deep Archive, a new storage class with costs starting as little as $0.00099 per GB (less than $1 per terabyte!) per month, 11 9s durability, no tapes to manage and recovery times measured in hours. It is clear AWS is challenging on-premise tape archival solutions to drive data stored in its cloud. The service will be generally available in 2019 in all regions.

Another two announcements that I believe will help data-hungry institutes would be Amazon FSx for Windows File Server and Amazon FSx for Lustre. The former is a compatible and scalable Windows File Server built on native Windows Servers to service the many solutions integrated with a solution built on Microsoft systems. The latter is a file system for compute-intensive workloads built on the popular open-source filesystem and offers seamless integration with Amazon S3. Both are fully managed services, launched with PCI-DSS, ISO and HIPAA compliance and are generally available now.

I believe the move to managed services, or taking the undifferentiated heavy lifting on behalf of customers, makes these a compelling offering for cost-sensitive organisations. This is, and continues to be, a winning strategy for AWS.

Security

Obviously, a huge topic of interest for any responsible high-profile organisation, security was well represented among the enouncements this year.

Amazon S3 Block Public Access is a new feature to help govern public access and prevent the many incidents reported in the news because of poorly configured S3 buckets. S3 Block Public Access can be applied to every S3 bucket in the account, both existing and any new buckets created in the future, and make sure that there is no public access to any object. This feature is available now in all commercial AWS Regions.

AWS Control Tower and AWS Security Hub are new services. The former to help simplify the setup and control of a secure and compliant, multi-account environment or landing zone using AWS best practice. It leverages AWS Organisations, manages authentication and centralised logging, provides dashboards for continuous visibility, implements safeguards such as preventing publicly readable buckets, non-encrypted storage, etc. The latter centrally manages security and compliance across an AWS environment. It aggregates alerts, provides a summary view of prioritised issues, and automates compliance checks to detect deviations against industry standards.

Having recently worked on similar solutions for a strategic government organisation seeking to achieve these same outcomes, I can see these becoming a mandatory requirement for UK public sector organisations as soon as they come out of preview and available in the London region - which I predict will be among the first for general availability.

Machine Learning

Like many sectors, I foresee that public sector will begin adopting machine learning services in the coming months to open new opportunities to help drive efficiencies and cost savings, and AWS will accelerate this through the introduction of new services aiming to remove obstacles for this technology.

Amazon SageMaker Ground Truth is a new service to build training assets and reduce data labelling costs by 70%.

AWS Marketplace for Machine Learning is a new service with more than 150 algorithms and models that can be deployed directly to Amazon SageMaker. At launch, the marketplace is already populated with free or paid algorithms that extend across a broad range of popular categories such as computer vision, natural language processing, speech recognition, text, data, voice, image, video analysis, predictive analysis, and more. This opens opportunities to quickly leverage the capabilities of data scientists for common machine learning applications.

Amazon SageMaker RL is a revolutionary service offering new machine learning capabilities in Amazon SageMaker to build, train, and deploy reinforcement learning models at scale. Reinforcement learning is an area of machine learning concerned with how software agents ought to take actions in an environment to maximise some notion of cumulative reward. Effectively trial and error, such as completing a Pac-man game, driving an autonomous vehicle, or solving the cure for cancer, etc.

All services are generally available now, although Amazon SageMaker Ground Truth is not yet available in the London region. Other machine learning services announced were high-level platform services with value to the public sector.

Amazon Textract is a new Optical Character Recognition (OCR) service to easily extract text and data from virtually any document. It offers automatic document processing without data entry or writing rules; it will honour form fields and table formatting and reproduce this data in an effective manner. This will be an invaluable service for those organisations heavily invested in forms that have been scanned on mass, providing them with a prospect to onboard analogue data into a digital platform where it can be indexed, and used for data analytics, machine learning, etc.

Blockchain

Finally, Amazon Managed Blockchain enables the management of scalable blockchain networks using the popular open source frameworks Hyperledger Fabric and Ethereum. A blockchain managed ledger could be used for maintaining shared records, for example, healthcare records for NHS organisations, or more interestingly shared citizen records to help break down information silos when sharing data across government departments. Hyperledger Fabric is available today in the US East region only, Ethereum is coming soon. I feel this is a service and technology to watch in the public sector space to drive pan-government innovation.

Themes

Three memorable takeaways from a modernizing public sector in the cloud session were the following:

  • Peter Quek Ser Hwee (CIO, Land Transport Authority, Singapore) discussed how he saw the benefit of an organisation splitting into two distinct parts to enable each to run at an appropriate run rate without impairing the other; the core business would remain at a steady operational speed releasing the digital transformation part to be more agile with high innovation and an appetite for experimentation.
  • Diptesh Patel (Deputy Director, Department of Work and Pensions, UK) highlighted the importance of maintaining a sustainable workforce. A point echoed by Jennifer Schaeffer (VP Information Technology and CIO, Athabasca University, Canada) with the importance of constant learning, from all levels of the workforce. Jennifer also, underlined that machine learning is here, and is no longer science fiction.
  • The collective thoughts from the panel regarding success in the cloud agreed that executive sponsorship is essential and should be backed by a cloud-first strategy. Secondly, the need for empowered staff that help motivation which in turn leads to successful outcomes.

Predictions

The following list is what I believe will drive innovation in the public sector in the coming year.

  • Aggregated and centralised security controls applied to AWS accounts helping organisations better control their estates leveraging service such as AWS Control Tower and AWS Security Hub to apply best practice.
  • While many organisations are struggling to realise the benefits of cloud-based storage, I can see new services such as Amazon Glacier Deep Archive and Amazon FSx will help give low-friction access to enterprise-class storage services.
  • No 2019 prediction would be complete without machine learning, and I believe this technology has now come of age and is accessible to all public sector organisations.
  • Finally, I foresee that local and central government organisations begin to adopt blockchain technology to help address the shortcomings of siloed information and provide truly holistic public services.

Historically there has been a delay in adopting new services while sufficient due diligence is conducted to whitelist cloud services that can be used by public sector organisations. However, my view from the ground is that the more security teams understand and trust cloud platforms the quicker this rate of adoption becomes, so I am hopeful some of the above will become allowable for public sector use in 2019.

As always, I’d love to hear your views on how recent announcements will impact public services, and please reach out to me if you’d like to know how we can help you realise some of these benefits within your organisations.

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AWS, Public Sector, Cloud