In-Depth

IT Cloud Survival Skills

Cloud computing may fundamentally change the way IT professionals do their jobs. Smart IT pros will be prepared for the upheaval to come.

I'll never forget the first time I heard about cloud computing. It was at least a decade ago, maybe longer, at a trade show in Las Vegas where Bill Gates gave the keynote address. Gates outlined a vision that involved universal connectivity, with data and various services living in the cloud.

Although I can't remember exactly when Gates gave this speech, or even which trade show it was, I distinctly recall the conversation I had with attendees as we left the keynote. We all thought Gates had lost his marbles. After all, who would ever turn over all of their data to a service provider? Besides, at that time, high-speed Internet connectivity was virtually nonexistent.

In the weeks following the conference, I all but forgot about Gates' cloud vision. As the years went on, cloud computing gradually crept onto the scene. Initially, the transition involved applications that connected to the Internet to complete various functions. Some of the earliest examples I can recall involved Microsoft Office retrieving the latest help files from the Internet, or certain Microsoft products requiring online activation. As high-speed Internet connectivity became more available, entire applications became Internet-based. Today there are dozens of companies that offer Web-based backup services.

Cloud computing is now a mainstream technology. Microsoft, through its Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS), offers hosted versions of Exchange, SharePoint and Office Live Meeting. Then there's Dynamics CRM Online, with much more to come.

Why the Cloud?
So, why is there such interest in cloud computing among big software vendors? Cloud computing is a sweet deal for software companies, and here's why: Applications that reside in the cloud are almost always subscription-based. This means an organization that subscribes to such a platform will never fully own a license for hosted apps. Even though the subscription fee may be small, organizations may well pay more over time than they would have if they had simply purchased licenses for the application.

Besides the increased revenues that the cloud model delivers, software publishers also save money on support costs. Because the publisher hosts the application itself, it can be sure that the application is configured correctly and is running on reliable hardware. These factors are likely to eliminate the vast majority of the support calls the software publisher receives.

There's another reason why cloud computing is such a big moneymaker for software publishers. When an application is hosted, it becomes almost impossible for it to be pirated. It goes without saying that some organizations that would've taken a few liberties with software licenses will be forced to properly license their software once it becomes available as a cloud-only solution.

All this being the case, it's safe to say that cloud computing isn't going to go away any time soon. Cloud computing might be one of the best things to ever happen to software publishers, but it isn't exactly the best thing to ever happen to IT professionals. Sure, cloud computing has the potential to make your job easier -- but it also has the potential to eliminate your job.

IT Must Adjust
For many years now, IT has had a reputation for being a high-demand profession in which skilled professionals can earn an above-average income. Unfortunately, I believe IT professionals are on the verge of becoming obsolete. If the obsolescence of IT professionals seems ridiculous, think about other industries the cloud has fundamentally changed.

In the 1980s, one of the surest ways to get rich was to open a video store. The VCR had just gone mainstream, and home video rentals were a hot new trend. Today you'd be hard pressed to even find a video store that's still in business. Instead, movies are delivered through the mail or over the wire from the cloud.

In some ways, the same thing has happened to the video game industry. Video games have always been something of a social experience. I remember sitting around the living room as a kid and playing Nintendo with my friends.

Console games still exist, but the social aspect has changed dramatically. Xbox 360, for example, is connected to a back-end cloud service that lets gamers compete with online opponents. Likewise, my wife subscribes to an online service called Pogo where all of the games are hosted in the cloud, and an entire online community has formed around the games.

My point is that cloud computing has dramatically transformed certain industries and has already rendered some of them obsolete. In the next few years, we may see the same thing happen to IT.

Although not yet widespread, there are already companies offering cloud-hosted desktops. It's conceivable that in the not-so-distant future, organizations will begin to replace traditional desktop computers with terminals that boot from a virtual hard drive hosted by a service provider. In fact, this technology already exists. Imagine what would happen if the company you work for decided it was less expensive to outsource its desktops to a hosting provider than to maintain physical desktop hardware. How many of the company's help desk staff would no longer be needed?

I realize many of you reading this article are network administrators or IT pros in other areas and not help desk technicians, but other IT pros are also in danger of becoming obsolete. Think about how many of your day-to-day duties would go away if your company decided to outsource its server applications. The hosting provider would perform tasks such as configuration changes, patch management and server backups.

So, which duties would be left for the network administrator of the future? Not many. Occasionally network admins might need to set up user accounts, but I think the hosting providers will probably develop Web front-ends that make user management idiot-proof. Go Daddy, for instance, is already doing just that with its Web-hosting packages.

When it gets to the point where network administration consists solely of mundane tasks, and those tasks have all been made idiot-proof, skilled network administrators will no longer be needed.

I realize this is a bold statement, but consider this: Most companies are not in the IT business. IT is simply a department within the organization that is there to facilitate the organization's business needs. Owners or shareholders want the company to be as profitable as possible, and one way of increasing profitability is to get rid of unnecessary costs.

If it becomes cheaper to outsource an organization's IT needs -- and doing so does not impact reliability -- you can bet it will only be a matter of time before shutting down IT departments becomes a new business trend. Once a company stops seeing you as an asset and starts seeing you as an expense, you're in trouble.

However, I don't have a crystal ball, and I don't believe IT is going to vanish completely. There will still be IT jobs, but those jobs are going to be concentrated in different areas. I think it makes a lot of sense to hone your skills in preparation for the inevitable changes that are coming to IT. That way, you can be ahead of those who remain unprepared.

Which IT skills are going to be needed over the next decade or so? The key is to consider what we know about cloud computing and about how businesses' IT needs are changing. There are three areas in which I predict IT growth.

Network Engineering
The first skill that's here to stay is network engineering. The very nature of cloud computing means organizations will be absolutely dependent on Internet connectivity. If connectivity to the outside world fails, the entire cloud-computing model breaks. I expect organizations to hire network engineers whose job it will be to ensure optimal connectivity.

Network engineers will have to focus on ensuring network reliability as their top priority. I also expect traffic shaping to become a hot skill for engineers. In case you aren't familiar with traffic shaping, it's a science that deals with prioritizing network bandwidth.

On any network, there's a collection of applications all competing for a finite amount of bandwidth. This isn't a problem if there's plenty of bandwidth to go around, but in a cloud-computing environment in which every application -- and possibly even the operating system -- is being hosted remotely, efficient bandwidth management becomes critical.

The idea behind traffic shaping is that while every packet of data needs to be delivered, some packets are more time-sensitive than others. Packets related to things like video conferencing or VoIP must be delivered as quickly as possible to avoid jitter. Packets related to something like a PowerPoint presentation, on the other hand, are a lot less time-sensitive.

Traffic shaping leverages technologies such as Quality of Service to reserve bandwidth according to an application's needs. The trick is to do so in a way that doesn't rob any of the applications of the bandwidth they really need: This is where network engineers come in.

If every single application is hosted, then Internet bandwidth saturation becomes a very real possibility. Traffic shaping will be essential to ensuring that hosted applications will be able to run in parallel without suffering from network bottlenecks.

Security
Another major growth area will be security, and most organizations' security needs will likely change. After all, server-level security becomes a non-issue if you don't have any servers. Likewise, desktop security -- at least by its current definition -- will go away as bloated desktop OSes give way to bootable thin-client components.

Having said that, network security will become vitally important, even more so than it is now. Not only will organizations have to prevent packet sniffing on the network, they will also have to take measures to prevent denial-of-service (DoS) attacks. Bandwidth saturation has the potential to be the Achilles' heel for cloud computing, so a DoS attack could prove to be crippling.

Additionally, as cloud computing becomes more prevalent, Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) will play a more important role in IT security. PKI is nothing new; its been widely used for years. The reason why PKI will increase comes down to trust. For example, if you install an application onto one of your servers, you have a natural tendency to trust that application because you're the one who installed it. You also know that the application is running on one of your servers -- which you also trust -- on a trusted private network.

In a cloud-computing environment, all of the applications are hosted in different places, and trust becomes more of an issue. Network administrators are going to expect remote servers to prove their identities so that admins know workstations aren't being redirected to a malicious server. Likewise, there's going to be an expectation for all remote applications to be digitally signed as a way of verifying that code hasn't been tampered with.

Eventually hosting providers are going to expect subscribers to provide digital signatures, too. Doing so will make it easier for the providers to verify that their wares are being used by legitimate, paying customers.

My advice is to bone up on network security. While you're at it, getting a Certified Information Security Systems Professional certification won't hurt, either.

Compliance
The biggest area of growth will be around compliance. Regardless of whether you love or hate the current administration in Washington, it's abundantly clear that it has set its sights on increasing regulations for businesses. While this will most likely be bad news for organizations that are trying to control costs, increased regulations will provide opportunities for IT professionals.

There isn't a doubt in my mind that hosting providers will help with regulatory compliance to some degree. However, I can't help but recall something that was often said when I was working with the military: You can delegate authority but not responsibility. In other words, hosting providers will be able to assist organizations with maintaining regulatory compliance, but ultimately it's the organizations' responsibility to ensure that they're compliant with the various regulations. It will be essential for organizations to employ IT professionals who have a good working knowledge of the various regulations, and who know how to ensure that the organization is able to pass an IT audit.

When it comes to compliance audits, the stakes are extremely high. The process of becoming compliant with various regulations can sometimes cost organizations millions of dollars and require several months of concentrated effort. With so much at stake, you can bet most organizations are not going to trust their compliance initiatives to someone who merely claims to know about compliance -- they're going to demand proof. As such, compliance-related IT certifications should become highly coveted over the next few years. This theory isn't purely speculative. I happen to know that the staff at FISMA Center -- an organization that certifies individuals as Federal Information Management Security Act Compliance Practitioners -- is barely able to keep pace with the demand for training and certification.

Prepare Today for Tomorrow
I don't believe today's IT skills will become completely obsolete. Hosting companies, for example, will have to hire employees to manage and maintain the hosted services. There will also be organizations that refuse to outsource their IT operations. Even so, network administration jobs are going to be in short supply, and it makes sense to focus on some of the skills that will be needed going forward.

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