In-Depth

The Cloud vs. IT: Is Your Job in Jeopardy?

Everyone, from software vendors and analysts to services providers, is pushing the cloud. But there's a raging debate as to whether the cloud is good or bad for IT.

A few years ago, IT pros feared outsourcing. Outsourcing took well-paying jobs and moved them to countries where standard wages wouldn't support a livestock animal in the Unite States. In the end, outsourcing surely did steal some jobs -- especially for developers -- but the rotten economy did far more damage.

Now, depending on who you talk to, there's a new threat to IT: the cloud. The typical vendor push is this: Let us have your data and your apps, and because we're so efficient, you can reduce the workforce -- you know, all those pesky IT folks who keep machines running, data secure and performance up to snuff. That's one reason many in IT resist the cloud. It's like outsourcing their jobs to Amazon.com Inc. or Google Inc. or Microsoft.

Others see the cloud as just another evolution of IT, and nothing much to worry about. In fact, they see it as something to embrace. But for nearly everyone in IT, when it comes to the cloud, issues of cost, security, data control and integrity, and job loss are present in one way or another.

One reader, who wished to remain anonymous, decries the cloud. "I see cloud computing for what it is: a return to the tyranny of the mainframe/dumb-terminal paradigm, and the loss of jobs for hundreds of MCSE and MSCAs," he says. "Does anyone really want to return to the bad old days of IBM?"

Cloud Confusion
As long as there has been an Internet, one could argue there has been a cloud. In fact, some of the older time-sharing systems had many characteristics of the cloud. It's no surprise, then, that many in IT are confused as to what exactly constitutes the cloud, and if it is, in fact, truly new.

Count Redmond reader David Fulton as one of the skeptics. According to Fulton, the only thing that's new about the cloud is the marketing behind it. "We were deploying distributed-computing applications 10 years ago," Fulton says. "While the database may be in another place, it still requires processor, RAM and storage, as well as the associated upkeep of indices, table spaces, security, procedures and all the other elements of data systems. The physical location may change, but it will still take the same resources per transaction as it takes in the local computer room," he adds.

Fulton does see that the cloud, through economies of scale, offers some IT savings, but argues that cloud platforms are not as flexible as an in-house system. "If it's a fair trade, you'll do it. If not, you'll keep it local," says Fulton.

Casey M., an MCP, also casts a suspicious eye on the cloud. "The cloud is just a label for remote and hosted computing that we did when we used terminals and mainframes. I dislike the phrase. It's vague, nondescript and ultimately meaningless," Casey says.

He continues: "To make use of the cloud, you must make your Internet connection the umbilical cord of your business if you do anything more than hosted backup."

The Cloud vs. IT Jobs: The Bad
Even if you believe the cloud is over-hyped, it clearly has the potential to dramatically change the IT job landscape.

Sebastian Bammer, an IT engineer from Vienna, Austria, with 10 years in the field, is deeply worried. "I have big concerns about the public cloud killing IT," says Bammer. "Cloud computing is great, but over time, there will be some big players that will provide almost all external cloud services, leaving the internal IT staff without a job. You might just need a small group of IT staff to provide infrastructure services for your organization."

Those who survive the cloud revolution may find on-premises jobs vastly different. In the future, the heavy lifting may be done by services providers, leaving the crumbs to IT. "As internal IT, you don't need a deep knowledge of your systems anymore. What you will need is the big picture, but that's about it. And with less knowledge comes less money," Bammer concludes.

If you listen to cloud vendors, a big part of cloud savings comes through personnel. "Recently I was at a local Microsoft office. They were talking about 'cloud services' and how infrastructure costs and associated personnel costs could be saved," says a reader and Microsoft customer. "If your IT job hasn't [already] disappeared, it just may do so in the Microsoft future."

For all those predicting doom and gloom, there are some that see a ray of sunshine in the midst of a storm. "The cloud has made my job easier," says Jason Burton, a senior solutions architect at MJH Consulting, who maintains the cloud environment for his users. "I see changes in job descriptions and salaries regarding cloud infrastructure. The standard help-desk role will change dramatically and supporting desktops from the cloud will become easier, such as with Windows Intune. The standard network admin no longer has duties like dealing with tape backups and other little things. Now it's cloud-managed and, unless you work for the cloud provider, you won't do as much anymore."

Burton has already seen the changes taking place, but for Johnny, another Windows admin, the changes are yet to come. "When the cloud first started, I thought if mail gets moved to the cloud that'll leave me more time to work on something else," says Johnny. "As time went on, more apps such as fax, storage and backup also moved to the cloud. Now it's possible to move the whole datacenter to the cloud. So where does that leave me? I thought, 'Someone has to make configuration changes,' but colleagues pointed out that some organizations hire a contractor to come in once or twice a week, make changes, see if everything is running well and move on. Then it dawned on me, [I may be] jobless. In five years I may be functionally obsolete," Johnny fears.

He's already seen it happen. A friend of his works in a shop that's all in the cloud. Fortunately, the friend is a network pro -- in fact, he's the only IT person left in the whole company.

Another Redmond reader, Roger, thinks the cloud is "just a transparent attempt by vendors to sell datacenter services in an effort to augment continuously decreasing and slim non-service margins." However, if the cloud does catch on, IT will have to change, he believes. "To the extent that server and storage farms may be located off-site, there may be fewer lab rats to rack and stack, and fewer admins needed to install and configure OSes and ubiquitous apps like Exchange," he says.

The Cloud vs. IT Jobs: The In-Between
Even if the cloud kills off on-premises jobs, services providers will need the IT savvy to run their networks and applications. "The cloud will change the logo on some paychecks, but will not make for substantial changes," says Redmond reader Steve from Baltimore. "The total number of positions will adjust slightly. Companies continue to strive to be more competitive. The key to the cloud is, can companies stabilize expected costs and performance? By offloading maintenance tasks to a services provider, expenditures can be stabilized, and maybe even reduced, and marginal jobs may go away. If the IT guy was a part-timer, anyway, now his tasks are reduced, possibly to zero. With a growing emphasis on security and compliance, the cloud has an instant appeal by solving or simplifying those issues for many smaller operations. Cost savings can be realized but not a large loss of jobs," Steve says.

Whatever there is to fear from the cloud, it likely won't crash IT overnight. "It's likely that cloud services will make inroads, and maybe big ones over time, but the same folks hyping the cloud were predicting ATM to the desktop in the mid-'90s. How's your Olicom stock doing?" asks reader Karl Compton of Houston.

CIOs may be better positioned in a cloud world than systems folks. That's because whether the app is on-site or remote, it has to support business priorities. "Should cloud-based services really become dominant, it will impact systems guys heavily. You won't need to spend as much time on care and feeding of servers," Compton says. "That's not going to happen quickly. Systems guys would just have different kinds of stuff to keep running, ranging from traditional PCs to phones. Cloud dominance probably won't bother router and switch guys much. Cloud apps still require plumbing, though there might be less big iron to play with. The cloud will just be another platform for application guys. Anyone who's bought Salesforce.com knows that there's a lot of configuration if you really want it to meet your needs."

Others see a mixed bag. "The cloud is complementary technology. When we went from local disk to SANs, we just moved to another technology that made it easier," says Randy Schmidt, a business continuity specialist. "I doubt jobs were lost. Data has to be somewhere and it needs a steward. That may be a DBA or sysadmin or both. When it goes to the cloud, it still needs a sysadmin and a DBA. Sysadmins won't mess with hardware as much, but patches, OS upgrades and application installs are still a reality. If it wasn't outsourced in the past, it won't be outsourced now. In fact, many large outsourcing engagements came back inside in recent years."

The Cloud vs. IT Jobs: The Good
Many of the perceived negatives of the cloud will only play out if the cloud truly comes to encompass much if IT. Reader Tunde Abugun questions just how hard and how fast the cloud will change the world. And even if the cloud does take over, IT will still be very much needed. "Whether the cloud is taking over or not is a question that's only answered after myriad considerations, such as affordability and tech dependability," says Abugun. "The people who will eventually drive the cloud are IT people. The cloud is ultimately IT."

Casey M. is also bullish on a cloud-filled IT future. "With cloud services you still need devices to access all of that data hosted in the cloud, so there will still be a need for personnel that understand and can support those access devices," he says. "Some may have to change their jobs, but the cloud will not rewrite the whole of IT."

The cloud is not a magic wand that suddenly makes computers easy to use and configure. And therein may lie the salvation of IT administrators, help desk and other personnel. "As long as there are users and managers who can't figure out how to use computers and programs, there will be IT. I still get requests from college-educated individuals on how 'this' works," argues reader Rick B. And the cloud can actually create more security exposure, a threat best beaten back by internal IT. "You always have IT security issues to deal with as relates to software management," Rick says, who adds that he's lucky to be retiring in a few years.

Reader John B. believes it will be a long time before private companies trust their data to an outside firm that doesn't have the same deep-felt conviction to safeguard their information. Because the cloud won't take over, it won't destroy IT, says John, a CISSP from Florida. Depending on your shop, there could be some deep security issues indeed.

"There are issues with national security that require only U.S. citizens to have access to data because of export laws," John explains. "The cloud is just the latest iteration of the IT cycle, and we'll survive it as we've survived all the previous cycles. Just look at the job forecast for the next few years. IT is at the top for a good reason. Just keep your skills current and you'll never have to worry about being employed."

In many cases, cloud apps will be managed as if they were on-premises. "Standard platform apps such as Exchange and SharePoint make sense to move to the cloud," says one reader confident of his future. "That doesn't mean all IT will be outsourced to providers. Even if you move infrastructure to a hosted or hybrid managed solution, you still need developers and key infrastructure people to manage those devices. Moving a platform to Rackspace doesn't mean that Rackspace magically, suddenly knows how to manage your customized complex applications."

It may be that IT can control its own destiny. "It's all about specs. Don't put things in the cloud that don't fit there. That means taking into account bandwidth, security requirements, and the ROI of a metered versus an un-metered environment. It also means that IT will never be entirely subsumed by the cloud. If we're smart and adaptable, we'll always have work. Only the details of that work will change," says one Redmond reader.

Reader Nathan isn't scared of any old cloud. "There are still management tasks that need to be completed by IT, such as Active Directory sync, backups and restores. Training end users on all the products and changes is enough to keep me busy for some time," Nathan says.

Outsourcing clearly hurt IT. But for some, that experience makes them confident they can withstand the cloud. "I work for a company that outsourced a great deal of IT services. Now we're beginning to see some of those very same jobs come back because it's more manageable to have them closer to the business," says Glenn Koster, an applications engineer. "I'm not concerned about the location of clouds or their support, provided they supply the needs of our business."

IT Opportunity
Change is a constant in the world of IT, and the best of the best always moves forward, whether in the face of outsourcing, changes in telecom or the cloud. "Change is an opportunity for IT professionals -- not in a shrinking regional market, but in an ever-expanding global market," says John West, CTO of Sitecore Corp. "Experience and skills make us valuable. Current trends make location less important, which is a good thing for a talented individual in any region. The cloud is just one more technology enabling this tremendous growth."

One reader believes IT should embrace this disruption. "Will the cloud kill IT? No. Will the cloud change IT? Yes. IT, like anything, changes over time, and some jobs will change because of the cloud," says the reader, who wishes to remain anonymous. "As the pendulum swings, the cloud is becoming the mainframe and phones, netbooks, tablets and computers are becoming the terminals -- until we swing back in the other direction."

Data Integrity Undoubtedly Doubted
Nothing brings an IT pink slip flying faster than losing critical company data. Some tactical cloud solutions include storage, backup and recovery. It sounds great on the surface, but IT pros need more proof before risking their jobs.

"Disaster recovery with an outsourced solution or cloud provider sounds like a dream. But have you read the horror stories in the last two years on how well some of them went?" asks Schmidt. "Smart companies know what makes sense to go to the cloud. Services such as chat, e-mail and maybe an external Web site make sense. But confidentiality must be considered."

These fears are more common than an Intel processor. "I just read how Yahoo! accidentally deleted someone's Flickr Pro account -- he was paying for the service -- that had more than 4,000 pictures and links to different Web sites. They restored the account but could not recover the data. Let's go to the cloud," jests one anonymous Redmond reader.

Data integrity is not to be taken lightly, and one could argue that IT understands it more than anyone else in the organization. "It used to be that execs looked to the 'computer center manager' for technical advice. Today, everyone's had a much larger exposure to technology -- that leads many execs into thinking they're capable of making good technical decisions. Because their expertise is elsewhere, these people rarely have time to read beyond the headlines," laments one reader. "If you aren't familiar with the whole story, you can make some colossal mistakes. My prediction for 2011 is that we'll start to see stories of companies going under due to the failure of a key cloud partner."

Some in IT fear both data access and integrity problems. "In Hawaii, we don't have the bandwidth many other areas enjoy," says reader Dan. "Trust is another issue. Many business owners don't trust their data off-site. Until the cloud is proven to be at least as trustworthy as local servers and storage, there will be slow acceptance at best."

Another Dan, from Iowa, perhaps puts it best: "There's this cool new buzzword -- the cloud! And it allows us to talk people into turning over their most confidential information to other companies, usually with little to no encryption. Overused buzzwords are cool!"

Uptime on the Up and Up
Data integrity is one thing. Not being able to get to your data, is also a business killer. "With a server and smart workstation, even a company of 15 employees wouldn't notice a problem on the local network. When setting up the network, you run two servers in parallel topography for redundancy," says a reader who asked to not be identified.

"If one server fails, the secondary server automatically switches to the primary server's role and sends a notification to your MCSE and your hardware vendor," he continues. "A slow down or drop off of a cloud system places you in the awful situation where you have 15 to 20 people drawing their hourly wage while sitting around and making paper airplanes. And you don't have a backup server, so you're stuck behind the eight ball and dead in the water."

World events are scaring the pants off of one Redmond reader. "One major issue with the cloud is a lot of dependencies exist to make it work, primarily a large, high-speed Internet infrastructure as a minimum," he says. "What happens when the government blocks Internet access like Egypt did? What happens if some other act occurs that breaks the connection or disables a centralized datacenter?"

Counting Cloud Costs
Let's face it: The main reason to switch to the cloud is to save dough. That may or may not happen, as many of the economics are still being sorted out. Meanwhile, many readers worry about the old bait and switch. "Right now, cloud computing is relatively inexpensive. As more businesses ditch their servers and stick their business into the cloud, the price for the service will, inevitably, increase," fears one reader, who asked to not be named.

"Change is an opportunity for IT professionals -- not in a shrinking regional market, but in an ever-expanding global market. Experience and skills make us valuable."

John West, CTO, Sitecore Corp.

Some IT pros are waiting for the numbers to become clearer. "Cloud services are currently priced to compete in organizations with limited datacenter infrastructure. When they become cost competitive with in-house applications where the infrastructure is already a 'sunk cost,' that will be the tipping point," says Bruce W., a reader from Oregon. Having said that, he argues that many organizations can garner the benefits of cloud computing on their own simply by taking advantage of various layers of virtualization, including data-management services, storage, CPU and network services.

Whether there are definable and provable savings or not, the cloud still involves some investment, and this alone could stall some growth. "If the economy doesn't improve, most places aren't going to be looking for any significant changes, even if there's a reasonable promise of lower cost down the road. Any time you make a significant change in IT, there's a 'cost hump' due to preparation, moving and final implementation that has to be overcome," says reader Dan from Hawaii.

Others see the cloud model as already proving its dollars-and-cents advantage. "There are distinct advantages of using hosted solutions, but they primarily provide benefits to overhead and management. Using hosted solutions, one can gain benefits in lower cost of ownership because a business is not maintaining hardware, security, power, backup and patch management," says Casey M.

Mixed Migration
IT pro Harry Rife is embarking on a cloud migration at his manager's behest, a migration that will take from six months to a year. While his manager is sold, Rife isn't so sure. "I have mixed feelings. When migrated, we'll be at the mercy of the Internet. Given current performance issues and capacity growth, will it be able to handle it? I know new high-speed routers and switches are being deployed faster than rabbits can procreate, but we already have a 6MB pipe and it's not enough," Rife says.

Beyond performance, Rife worries about data ownership and data security. "The cloud is a little foggy in some respects. Who owns the data, the application, security? How many different parties are involved in the logistics of it? Do you put your mission-critical applications on it? If there's a disaster that takes down the communications

infrastructure -- fire, earthquake, flood, accident -- how do you continue business?" Rife asks. "I will, as I have done in the past, embrace it and deal with it the best that I can for as long as I can."

A Clear Cloud Believer
While part of the IT world doubts and stands back, many IT pros are gung-ho, like reader Nathan. "I work at a firm with less than 50 employees, and the cloud is a perfect fit. I am a department of one. We bought into the complete Microsoft Business Productivity Online Suite. We are just about to move our e-mail to Microsoft. This will not 'kill' my job, but will have a huge impact," Nathan explains. "I'll have fewer management headaches, more budget money due to the savings and more time to spend on other projects."

Burton is nearly on the same page. "I think the cloud is a great idea, and it's already changing the face of business. More productivity, more reliability and more opportunities for management and ROI," he says.

But not all are so bullish. "The cloud will never, in our lifetime, overcome the distrust of the hacker community and Big Brother that is predominant in our society," says Jim Rhea, IT desktop support analyst for Reata Pharmaceuticals Inc.

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