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IT Industry Gets Cloudy

Smaller departments, new skills forecast

By Brad Smith

Clouds obscure the sky above. That’s a fairly good description of cloud computing, one of the latest “in” computing phrases that obscures the future for IT organizations.

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The term itself is somewhat confusing. There’s general agreement that the “cloud” in cloud computing is the Internet but the term often gets confused with other expressions like Software as a Service (SaaS), Web. 2.0, or even Web services.

Some of the confusion can be blamed on companies trying to sell their next-generation infrastructure or middleware, says Daryl Plummer, Gartner Group chief of research for advanced IT. Some say cloud computing is only the use of virtual machines deployed on servers, while others say it is the same as SaaS. And all SaaS is cloud computing, Plummer says, but not all cloud computing services are SaaS.

What exactly is it?

“Cloud computing is much more broad than software as a service,” he says. “Software as a service is pretty much about the application. Let’s say I’ve got a billing service I deliver through the cloud and I have a billing application that is the basis of that service. What people subscribe to is the billing; they don’t want to get the application. The billing that you deliver might not be a complete application; it might just be some information about your billing.”

So, cloud computing is all about services and not about the technology that makes those services possible. Plummer uses Amazon’s EC2 (Elastic Compute Cloud) as an example. Companies rent Amazon’s compute platform to run their own applications. EC2 uses Web services and virtual machines but the compute platform itself is the service.
“There will be as many kinds of cloud computing services as there are molecules in the air,” Plummer says. “There will be billions of them.” At it simplest, cloud computing includes online email like Google Mail. But the photo-sharing site Flickr and video-sharing site YouTube can also be considered cloud services.

Apple’s iPhone uses cloud computing with the music-recognition application, Shazam, which identifies songs when someone holds an iPhone up to a radio and then, using the cloud, sends the information to the user and makes it possible to download the song.

Profound effect on IT organizations

Plummer says cloud computing, as well virtualization and service orientation, will have a profound impact on IT organizations. Businesses care less about the technology than they do about what the technology does and how much it costs. The people who run businesses want to see services, not technology.

“They only care that they are paying for a service that is doing what they want, when they want to do it,” he says.

Cloud computing means most IT departments will no longer buy servers. Instead of buying a Microsoft Exchange Server, businesses will just pay Microsoft an annual fee for Microsoft Exchange Online.

Companies called independent software vendors (ISVs) will feel the biggest impact from cloud computing. Their customers will no longer need to buy software from an ISV, instead getting the software service through a cloud computing company. Plummer says ISVs will need to link up with cloud computing services in the future.

IT will need to evolve

Plummer believes IT organizations will have to evolve to become service providers themselves, and their employees will need to develop relationship management skills in order to negotiate and manage contracts. According to Gartner analyst Thomas Bittman, one of the major unrecognized challenges of cloud computing will be how IT departments will manage the services.

Cloud computing experts will need broad experience. A recent opening for a senior cloud computing engineer called for technical familiarity with server-class operating systems and Web hosting, a SQL database, scripting, large-scale systems, and performance monitoring, as well as deep knowledge of complex server hardware and network design, setup, configuration, maintenance, troubleshooting, and problem solving; and excellent technical customer service skills.

The position involved deploying and maintaining scores of servers, storage systems, virtual machines, and network equipment within multiple data centers and lab environments. In addition, it called on the individual to troubleshoot and resolve problems with complex systems, applications, system performance, networking, and clustering problems. And even some software development jobs require knowledge of how cloud computing works.

IT departments, Plummer argues, will have to broker relationships between cloud computing service providers and IT consumers. IT organizations will not disappear because of cloud computing, he says, but he thinks they will become smaller. CW (January 2009)

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