IT Jobs: Winners and Losers in the Cloud Era

There's a simple reason so many people say cloud computing will change everything about the IT universe: The cloud democratizes technology to a degree even more profound than when the PC first gave nontechnical people the ability to create unmanageably large spreadsheets they could play with instead of work.

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It's probably not as profound as the Internet revolution, which allowed ordinary people to rely on Google rather than an eidetic memory and rich classical education, but it's not far off, says Dan Olds, founder of consultancy Gabriel Consulting Group. Cloud computing gives nontechnical people quick, affordable access to the most sophisticated software, storage, and data -- access they're using to try to do their jobs better, with or without the involvement of IT, he says.

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CIOs used to have to deal with the occasional rogue IT project; now they have to deal with business managers who hire the equivalent of several IT departments using a credit card and their normal operational budgets, says Susan Cramm, founder of executive career-development and strategy consultancy Valudance, as well as former CIO of Taco Bell and CFO of a smaller PepsiCo restaurant chain. In fact, 65 percent maintain an IT budget of their own -- carved from their normal operational budget -- for SaaS or cloud services they can buy directly, rather than going through IT.

What does this mean to IT jobs? Some IDC stats give an indication:

  • By 2014, one-third of all IT organizations will be providing cloud services to business partners rather than providing IT internally, says a poll of attendees at IDC's Cloud Leadership Forum in June.
  • By 2015, spending on public cloud services (including SaaS) will make up 46 percent of all new IT spending, says IDC's June 20 forecast of Worldwide IT Cloud Services. SaaS will make up three-quarters of that spending, giving SaaS and cloud providers the leading role in vendor relations with your company.
  • "It's not a matter of throwing out all the job descriptions and organization and starting something new," says Sean Hackett, an analyst at the research firm 451 Group. "There are a lot of commonalities, but the experience will change. Ultimately the bulk of IT could look more like a projects office than the way it looks now, when most of the hands-on work is done inside. It probably won't be a total transformation, but moving into cloud, there will be more of that and less DIY."

    Where are the changes actually going to happen? Here's a breakdown by role of who wins, who loses, and who must change in the cloud era.

    Biggest winners: Enterprise architects The biggest change, analysts and IT vendors agree, will be the rise to prominence of a job often considered too abstruse for many companies and too narrowly focused to be practical for others, says consultant Cramm. That job: enterprise architect.

    Enterprise architects have often been their own worst enemies, says Mark Egan, CIO of EMC VMware, the company most responsible for the spread of virtualization in IT environments. "It takes really top technical skills to be able to master the technical aspects, but you find a lot of people with that level of technical understanding don't want to talk to anyone," Egan says. "They might just want to sit and draw out systems on paper and not know how to get anyone to want to work with them."

    But in an organization whose IT infrastructure is heavily virtualized, abstracted, and split among internal and externally housed cloud platforms, the most important IT staff job -- hands down -- is the enterprise architect, Egan says.

    Architects -- system, database, network, or otherwise -- are typically systems designers whose jobs are highly conceptual, but also very concrete, says Chris Wolf, a virtualization and cloud analyst at Gartner. "Underneath all the abstraction there is just as much of a need to manage the details of resource management and performance as with physical servers," he says. "Instead of only having to deal with the number of variables you might have within one server farm or data center or smaller set of servers, in a cloud-based infrastructure you can allocate resources like memory or CPU cycles or bandwidth or I/O across the whole organization. That's a far more complicated picture."

    Within a cloud infrastructure, the relationships among applications, networks, and servers are far more complex than traditional infrastructures because there are so many additional connections, says Rachel Dines, an infrastructure and operations analyst at Forrester Research. That means architects are essential.

    Despite the abstract notions that people typically associate to architects, the reality is that much of the job focuses on the critical details than enable everything to work well. For example, "people tend not to think of performance tuning in cloud or virtualized systems," says Patrick Kuo, an independent consultant who has helped build Web and virtual-server infrastructures at Dow Jones, the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Defense Information Services Agency.

    He advises that you start with the right servers and processors -- make sure each has enough power, memory, and cache, and that network connections are reliable and fast -- then split major functions and distribute each across the infrastructure to help avoid bottlenecks from weak links in the computing chain, or concentrations of too many workloads in one place, Kuo says.

    "We've been able to get better performance in many case with a four-tier architecture instead of your typical three-tier, putting a layer of caching in the front, then the apps servers holding most of the logic, then the Web servers and a replicated database backing them up. It's all n-tier application design, but it has to be done differently in virtualized environments like cloud services or you get bottlenecks in places you wouldn't think would cause problems," Kuo says.

    sysadmin
    Winners: System administrators Other than architects, the jobs undergoing the greatest change as cloud encompasses the data center are those involving hands-on system administration.

    Architects may design and tune cloud infrastructures, but system administrators do the detailed work of spreading workloads across servers, virtual servers, and data centers, assigning CPU cycles, memory, storage, and other resources as needed to keep performance high.

    "If you don't change job descriptions so sys admins aren't restricted to one silo -- because the applications and VMs in an internal cloud aren't restricted, either -- you're letting the potential gain in efficiency for IT people go to waste," says Forrester analyst Dines. "You can't get the most out of a cloud infrastructure if your admins are still suck in older ways of doing things."

    At VMware, for example, Egan thought it made more sense to distribute IT staffers to individual business units according to the amount of IT resources used by that unit. Rather than working in the data center and being responsible for supporting a business unit, they're located in and responsible to IT managers within that business unit -- feeling and being treated as a part of the business-unit team rather than as support from outside the department, Egan says.

    But cutting the absolute connection between system administration and physical hardware doesn't eliminate the need to maintain the hardware, consultant Olds notes. "You have to have people handling the hardware itself or the networks, but a lot of the things we used to do have gone away," Olds says. "You don't usually have someone sitting and rebuilding a server for hours or days. If a server goes bad, you pull the card out of the chassis, throw it away and slot in another. Or you close out the VM and provision another. Then you go on to the next thing. It's a far higher level of efficiency."

    Winners: Front-line IT managers Lower-level IT supervisors and managers will also have to make major changes to their responsibilities and daily routines under cloud infrastructures -- and for the same reasons that apply to sys admins, consultant Cramm says: If all the system administrators are responsible for processes running in portions of the cloud distributed throughout the company, it makes no sense to have their direct supervisors locked in the old silos.

    IT gains from loosening organizational structures so that people are assigned to support specific business functions or business units, rather than to a specific server, says James Staten, a cloud computing and infrastructure analyst at Forrester Research. Most companies moving into cloud or virtual computing for the first time don't appreciate how restrictive organizational silos can be in slowing or stopping a migration, even if the only problem is the need to continually make ad hoc decisions about who is responsible for which workloads or Web services, he adds.

    The result of the cloud for IT supervisors is a role similar to the one they have today but in a far larger environment -- one that could encompass the whole enterprise rather than just one facility.

    Next Page: changing roles and losers...

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