The Fallacy of the Cloud

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As part of my efforts to formalize much of the IT experience and education I already have, making it easier to present and qualify, I took the opportunity of the recent Christmas/New Year break to start going through Rackspace’s Cloud University (CloudU) curriculum. I actually took the time to read all of the material provided for the 10 lessons, eschewing the hour long webinars. I also passed the final exam and obtained the certificate (you can see my badge on the right).

Much of the material, concepts, and decision points discussed were very familiar to me having researched and written extensively about cloud computing during my time at Info-Tech Research Group. However, one thing kept jumping out at me about the information compiled by Ben Kepes of Diversity Limited; this thing about a supposed lack of system administrators required for those organizations choosing to deploy their infrastructure in a public cloud (i.e. Amazon AWS, Rackspace Cloud, GoGrid, Flexiant, Joyent, CACloud, etc).

Mr. Kepes and I are both members of the Cloud Computing Standards Forum on LinkedIn, and share several connections, so I took the opportunity of being a 2nd degree connection to take a look at his profile. As I suspected, Mr. Kepes does not have an IT background. As far as I can tell, his experience with computers does not go to the depth required to actually go about deploying any cloud infrastructure, whether public, private, or hybrid, and so I’m no longer surprised about his conclusions.

In reality, he’s way off the mark. He consistently talks about how IT professionals will need to adapt their skills in order to ensure they’re still relevant to a business that chooses to deploy some, or even all, of its infrastructure in a public cloud. That’s true, but he assumes that not doing so will directly result in those same IT professionals losing their jobs.

Fortunately, he’s wrong. Smart, and very insightful, but wrong. The type of scenario Mr. Kepes is actually referring to is moving to a managed services provider… the kind of company that will not only host your infrastructure, but will also perform much of the system administration for you. In reality most public cloud providers, including the ones I mentioned above, don’t offer that level of service. And if they do it’s at a premium, minimizing the cost reductions a business is expecting to achieve (rightly or wrongly).

No, unless you’re training the Receptionist to configure a fresh Linux or Windows machine to run the application (effectively making them an IT pro as well!), SysAdmins are still very much a part of the future. One “skill” that moving to a public cloud minimizes/negates is how to size and buy a server. I don’t know any IT pro that’s ever put “server buying/sizing” as a skill on their resume, but this is one big step in the application deployment process that will no longer be required, or at least minimized, as public cloud infrastructure is increasingly utilized.

So, for all it’s worth, don’t believe everything you read about moving to a public cloud. It can absolutely be very beneficial, especially for web-based apps that you still want to control for yourself (e.g. SharePoint, Cynapse, an IP PBX/phone system), but don’t expect to reduce your IT staff because of it. Your employees still need computers of some sort to connect to those cloud-hosted apps, and therefore a corporate network is still required, and someone needs to maintain that network. And your employees’ machines need maintaining and support. And those cloud/virtual servers don’t configure themselves, nor do the applications you install on them. Even companies that adopt SaaS solutions will inevitably finding themselves stuck for skills to help them integrate everything.

You will, however, get out of the server-buying business, and therefore reducing your electricity costs, and capital expenditures. That’s fine, because buying servers is not what IT professionals enjoy doing all day, anyway. There’s nothing wrong with asking your IT staff to become more strategic partners to the business, and no doubt you’ll find many eager to do so. Just don’t expect to get rid of them simply because you’re not buying any boxes for the server room.

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