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The evolution -- not revolution -- of IT skills for the cloud

As more businesses adopt cloud computing, certain IT skills will grow in demand. New technologies will elevate the need for a different mix of abilities, but rarely are IT professionals are required to learn radically

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different skills. IT is more evolutionary than revolutionary.

IT managers or system administrators shouldn’t be concerned about losing their jobs if the company makes a significant move to cloud computing. Cloud alters how we deliver IT services, but it does not eliminate the need for them. The key for IT pros is to understand how to use cloud to their organization’s advantage.

System administrators will do more than administer
Sizing servers, configuring hardware and other tasks typically associated with system administration are no longer necessary when using public cloud services. Instead, administrators may find themselves configuring software stacks, building virtual machine (VM) images and writing scripts for cloud deployment and configuration tools, such as Chef and Puppet.

Cloud alters how we deliver IT services, but it does not eliminate the need for them. The key for IT pros is to understand how to use cloud to their organization’s advantage.

System administrators will still need to back up applications and databases, review logs and manage user privileges, but these tasks will be different. Rather than backing up a production system to a second-tier storage array and disk, admins may back up to a cloud storage provider.

While system admins must understand network and storage architecture in their data centers to mitigate risks, the same is true within the cloud. System administrators who think and act like system architects are essential to keeping business operations running in the cloud.

Security will always be in demand
The need for security will never cease, despite changes in architecture. IT professionals responsible for identity management, access control and other forms of logical security are still necessary to protect cloud-based systems.

The demands for physical security skills, such as controlling access to data centers, will diminish along with on-premises physical assets. However, the need for more logical access controls and network security will offset this. Companies will need people with a deep understanding of security protocols, especially in industries with heavy compliance requirements. Well-defined data classification schemes will also be needed to define the types of data that may persist in the cloud.

Businesses will rely on security professionals to help assess the risk of using platforms like Google App Engine and services like Salesforce.com. IT staffs with skills to identify risks in cloud services and formulate measures to control these risks will cut costs for a business without putting it at risk. Security pros with these skills will be in high demand.

IT managers move up the value chain
Managers who measure success by the number of direct reports or value of physical infrastructure under their control will need new metrics. Computing and storage infrastructure are commodities -- Amazon and Rackspace have proven that.

IT staffs with skills to identify risks in cloud services and formulate measures to control these risks will cut costs for a business without putting it at risk. Security pros with these skills will be in high demand.

The cloud streamlines the delivery of compute and storage resources, and that creates opportunities for IT managers to perform more important duties. For example, instead of trying to project the need for additional servers and storage, managers can analyze data collected by applications. With the cloud, a department can have access to the infrastructure needed to build a business intelligence (BI) and predicative analytics service that is necessary to strengthen business processes. Combine the available cloud infrastructure with pay-as-you-go access to analytics software, and the cost of improved decision support drops considerably compared to an in-house implementation. IT managers can move up the value chain of business management; shifting from collecting and managing data to analyzing it and adjusting business processes according to findings.

The economics of cloud computing are driving businesses to adopt this model of service delivery. Over the course of the last several decades, we’ve seen how automation, outsourcing and globalization has changed the way businesses operate. It is IT’s turn to adapt to a new practice that may threaten existing ways of doing our jobs. Cloud computing will not eliminate the need for system administrators, security professionals or IT managers, but it will change what they do.


Dan Sullivan, M.Sc., is an author, systems architect and consultant with over 20 years of IT experience with engagements in advanced analytics, systems architecture, database design, enterprise security and business intelligence. He has worked in a broad range of industries, including financial services, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, software development, government, retail and education, among others. Dan has written extensively about topics ranging from data warehousing, cloud computing and advanced analytics to security management, collaboration, and text mining.

This was first published in January 2012

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