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Sometimes your head needs to be in the Cloud

An occasional blog by Alan Sweeney, MD of the Centre of Excellence.

Most people reading this blog won’t have failed to notice the noise out there about the Cloud. (For everyone else, you need to know that the Cloud is the Next Big Thing in IT). The Cloud means the end of the familiar IT scenario where each individual organisation has its own servers, software physically loaded onto individual computers, and an IT team that maintains hardware, installs service packs and answers support calls.

The Cloud is threatening to change all that to make way for the relocation of IT services to the Internet. We started out with “Software as a Service” (SaaS) which meant that, instead of loading application software onto all 500 of your office desktops, the application would now be located on a server farm somewhere “in the Cloud” and accessed via a browser and a fast Internet connection. While the idea initially gained ground with users of some ERP, CRM and accounting software users, it took off with the availability of the most popular suite with most organisations – Microsoft Office – in the shape of Office 365.

Then we’d hardly got our heads around Platform as a Service (PaaS – such as the Google App Engine and Windows Azure) which offers a Cloud-based operating platform and solution stack, than we discovered Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) – which removes the need for any actual server hardware and sorts out your storage and security requirements as well. Before we knew it, we were at the point when we didn’t need central storage, local hard drives, application software, IP addressing, VLANs, clustering, load balancing, backup procedures or hardware maintenance. Sounds like IT heaven.

Except to one group of fairly disgruntled people: the ones whose jobs have historically involved looking after central storage, local hard drives, application software, clustering, load balancing and so on – the humble, and now apparently endangered, species known as systems administrators. There has been a spate of anguished IT professionals asking aloud if the rise of the Cloud will destroy their jobs. Office 365, for example, bundles many of the features of Exchange, SharePoint and Lync server tools, and your regular payments to Microsoft mean that you need no longer worry about installing service packs or upgrading to the next, shinier version. So if there is no software to update and no hardware to maintain, and if users are guaranteed 99.9% uptime, where do the sysadmins fit into this brave, new world?

I’ve seen many pessimistic blogs on the subject. Nextgov.com, a US-based site, provides examples of how city authorities have embraced cloud services as part of the Obama administration’s cloud computing initiative, and cut IT posts immediately afterwards. Many junior IT people have been openly questioning their investment of time and money in gaining certifications which might be rendered obsolete by their jobs moving to the Cloud. Computerworld.com has pointed out that the wholesale virtualization and repositioning of service delivery that the Cloud represents threatens the positions of senior IT directors and CIOs as well as rank and file IT-ers.

So are we going to see IT professionals turning into hacked-off Luddite vigilantes attempting to sabotage the move to the Cloud, just as their forbears tried to stop industrialisation by machine-breaking on an organised scale?

Somehow I don’t think so.

The IT industry has been here before. In fact, so has the IT training industry. Back in the early 2000s I probably read at least one article a day telling me how the wonderful new technology called “e-learning” was going to render classroom training extinct within five years. But look at most of the surveys today and you’ll find that, given the choice, most people would still prefer to attend a real course, delivered by a real instructor, no matter how good an e-learning product is (and most e-learning these days is beyond recognition better than it was back then). In the training industry, we just remembered the same claims being made for CBT (computer-based training – the primitive ancestor of e-learning) back in the 90s; we quietly incorporated e-learning into our portfolios and carried on training.

The fact is, business IT has always adapted to technological advances. When IBM and ICL mainframes were being superseded by client-server technology, new jobs arose to replace the ones that had been lost. In the early 90s, Novell NetWare had over 90% of the world’s LAN server market before losing practically all of it to Windows NT and subsequent Microsoft server products within ten years. There was no mass loss of IT jobs: far from it.

I don’t think there is any reason for good IT professionals to be worried. Yes, some familiar IT administration and support jobs will become casualties and that’s serious for those affected, but a glance at history tends to show us that new IT trends equate to new IT jobs. As Cloud providers grow they will need experienced IT people to staff them. The IT industry will shift in its seat for a while then find another comfortable position and carry on. But that isn’t to say today’s sysadmins should be complacent. Back when mainframes gave way to servers, and NetWare surrendered to Windows, the IT professionals who stayed in jobs were the ones who embraced the new technologies and retrained for them.

IT professionals working in systems administration or support who’ve been avoiding the Cloud because it’s outside their comfort zones may need to change their minds. Like many technological advances, the Cloud offers opportunities but only to those who are positioned to exploit them.