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“May You Live in Interesting Times” – The Impact of Cloud Computing

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Changing of the Guard

Changing of the Guard

Kylie Fowler is a regular columnist for The ITSM Review, see previous articles from Kylie here.

It’s not often that most people get to experience a true paradigm shift, even in IT where change is endemic and part of the lifeblood of the industry. However there is no doubt that cloud computing and the commoditization of processor power and storage represent a true metamorphosis in the way we think about and structure IT services.

Cloud computing is actually the next step in a long series of IT developments which have promoted the decentralization of computing in businesses. The gradual decentralization of corporate IT can be tracked from highly centralized mainframes with their bespoke software, through the development of client server computing, the commoditization of software and finally, with cloud computing, the commoditization of processor power. This shift will have dramatic implications for how and where IT professionals will carry out their roles in future,

Right back at the beginning of corporate IT (in the dark ages known as the 1970s) computing power was served up from giant mainframes to users sitting at dumb terminals who carried out business functions using highly centralized in-house applications. Believe it or not, some of these old systems, developed on punch cards by engineers are still in use today, generally because they are too expensive to redevelop on a more modern platform, or the risks of doing so are too high.

The first steps towards the decentralization of IT came in the next era of computing, the one most of us are familiar with – the era of client-server computing. Significantly lower processor costs mean that processor power can be co-located with users (although largely separated from storage to ensure data security), while large clusters of servers provide basic services such as network access and email. For most businesses, day to day IT operations are still architected, managed and controlled within the organisation, albeit on highly commoditised hardware. In contrast, software has been largely commoditised, with powerful software publishers selling software for use under license. Complex applications are still modified in-house to meet corporate needs, but the underlying intellectual property is owned by the software vendor. This is the era of Microsoft, Oracle and SAP.

However we’re gradually moving into a new era, where the configuration and day to day management of hardware, software and the actual processing of bits and bytes are moving out of the corporation altogether. More and more organisations are asking themselves whether it is really cost effective to host basic services like email or word processing or spreadsheet analysis in-house when high quality services are available on-line for minimal cost.

Don’t get me wrong, there will always be servers and desktops and laptops, just as there are still mainframes, while large organisations may decide to develop private clouds to take advantage of economies of scale while reducing the risks inherent in trusting data to a third party, but the paradigm shift, the change in the computing world view that we are experiencing at the moment, is every bit as profound as the shift from mainframes to client-server computing was 20 years ago.

So what will the impact of this paradigm shift be for real people like you and me? Here are some of my predictions.

Service Operations will migrate out of the business

The essence of cloud computing is that what we have traditionally thought of as ‘IT’ has become a commodity. Most companies will no longer find they have a requirement for staff who can build a PC or a server as this requirement will have either been outsourced, virtualized or hosted on the cloud. But as is the case for mainframes, there will always be the odd niche where techies will thrive, so don’t despair!

Despite the growing importance of the actual connection to the cloud, network operation skills will also be outsourced, despite the fact that a secure, robust network to access cloud services will be even more critical than it is now.

Service Strategy and Service Design will become the core competence of IT Departments

The main business of IT is providing services that meet the needs of the business, but the new world of the cloud means most of those services will actually be provided by external companies. Logically, then, the core function of an IT department will be to decide HOW to provide the services to the business. Questions for Service Strategists and Designers will include: Which services do we put on the cloud, and which do we keep in house?  How will we ensure there is a seamless blend between the two? Which services should be provided as a unit, and which can be provided be different suppliers? How do we manage our suppliers to ensure they work together to ensure effective provision of all the services we need?

Service Transition will be vital for keeping suppliers on their toes

One of the biggest risks inherent in cloud computing is the danger of being locked into poorly performing, costly services which are either too risky or too expensive to escape. Service transition skills will be critical in keeping suppliers on their toes by giving management the confidence that it is possible to walk away if the service isn’t up to scratch while ensuring that new services are up and running as quickly and smoothly as possible.

Peripheral skills will move to the core

Areas which are currently considered peripheral to the operation of an IT organisation will become more prominent. The ability of Strategic Procurement to negotiate contracts that create value and minimise costs and risks will determine whether IT brings competitive advantage to the business, or, at the opposite extreme, becomes a costly white elephant that reduces productivity. IT Vendor and Asset Management will focus on ensuring the business achieves the value it expects from its Service Providers and will manage the fall-out when things go wrong, while Information Security will become more akin to Business Risk Management, assessing information risks and ensuring safeguards are in place to protect the organisation’s reputation.

How to survive the coming change?

The move to cloud computing resembles the slow grind of tectonic plates rather than a sudden tsunami devouring everything in its path. As with the movement of the continents, the shift to cloud computing will be slow but both inevitable and unstoppable. There will be the odd earthquake, of course, devastating for those on the fault line, but many people will find it has no major effect on their careers, and in some instances, may even enhance them.

IT folk are inured to change, but it has to be said that many of us lack flexibility. Be willing to shift sideways, or into a different industry (or onto the cloud itself) and be open to alternative ways of using your existing skills – perhaps move into consultancy or (shudder) sales. Broaden your skills base and see continuous professional development as a fundamental part of your working life – on a par with your morning commute or annual review.

Develop your soft skills, particularly communication. It’s hard to be a consultant, for instance, helping organisations change, unless you can communicate effectively and work with a wide range of people on many different levels.

Make it your business to understand the business. IT exists only because it offers businesses competitive advantage. The higher the competitive advantage provided by IT, the higher the rate of investment – you just need to compare the level of investment between the Finance and Construction industries to see clear evidence of that! Understand how IT offers your business competitive advantage and make sure your work supports this. If the business asks you to change because you are no longer helping it succeed, then change!

Find a niche. There are still jobs out there supporting mainframes, and there will always be jobs maintaining server based in-house applications. The jobs will be limited, but if you find a niche or have an obscure skill that a particular company can’t survive without, then the rest of your career could be very comfortable indeed. But don’t forget to be flexible! If your bosses out-source 90% of the niche jobs to India, it will be your ability to manage the outsourcer effectively that means you keep your job!

Kylie Fowler

It’s an exciting time to be working in IT, and although some people will suffer from the shift to the cloud, I am optimistic that the old Chinese proverb ‘may you live in interesting times’ will turn out to be a blessing rather than a curse for most IT professionals.

Note: if you are interested in reading more about the impact of the shift to the cloud, the Silicon.com website has an extensive special feature on the impact of the cloud which can be accessed at the link below.

http://www.silicon.com/special-features/cloud-security/

Kylie Fowler is a regular columnist for The ITSM Review, see previous articles from Kylie here.




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