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

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.


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

2011 – The Year When Irresistible Force Met Immovable Object

Kylie Fowler is a regular columnist for The ITAM Review (see tag: Kylie Fowler). Here Kylie writes her first article for The ITSM Review.

As we blithely march into the bold new world that is 2012, I’d like to take a pause to take a look back at 2011, which I would contend is one of the most momentous years in corporate computing.

Why? Because 2011 was the year of an extraordinarily swift paradigm shift, triggered by the introduction of the irresistible, mesmerizing gadget that is Apple’s iPad into Corporate Boardrooms everywhere and enabled by the same virtualization technology that is supporting the shift to the cloud.

But a simple change in technology is not in itself a paradigm shift, nor is Apple’s iPad particularly revolutionary, although it feels that way to users – after all, laptops and 3G cards have been around for years. The paradigm shift is that in 2011 IT Departments have surrendered control over their end user technology, and don’t really expect to be in the driving seat ever again!

All the ingredients for this change have been in place for several years now, but CIOs and their asset managers have been resisting the change on the grounds of information security and cost. It took the sudden demand en masse for iPads in the C-suite to break the chains of control over end user technology and shift thinking away from command and control of individual devices to the technology free-for-all that we will enjoy in 2012 and beyond.

What are the ingredients that have both demanded and enabled this change?

Consumer technology is now more powerful than corporate PCs

Corporate End User technology choices used to be driven by a need to process data effectively (ever more complex software required ever more processing power) and store secure data securely while minimizing costs. The outcome was that corporate desktop computers had highly standardized hardware and software (to minimise support overheads) were tightly controlled (to ensure data security) and were generally more powerful than the PCs most employees had at home.

However a combination of cheaper processing power, the rise of visually sophisticated computer games and fast home broadband meant that even 5 years ago the majority of new home PCs provided a far sleeker user experience than clunky work machines that were optimised for spreadsheets.

For several  years now End Users have been frustrated that the technology they used at home was so much better than the technology they had available at work, but they were unable to do anything about it until Senior Executives ignored IT concerns about data security and demanded they be allowed to use iPads.

Smartphones have made technology personal and very, very sexy

Through the technology dark ages (aka the 1960s and 1970s) and into the noughties, personal prestige and social status was signaled by the car you drove, or, for a woman, by the type of car your boyfriend drove!

Modern technology (and feminine emancipation!) means that this role has been largely taken over by the mobile phone. Everyone has one and they come in myriad shapes and sizes. Some are expensive, some are cheap, but they all make a statement about who we are, whether we like it or not.

Smart phones take this personalization a step further. They are a filofax plus – calendar, contacts, games, photos, music, TV shows, books, everything that makes us an individual has a place in our smartphones, and it won’t stop there – watch out for the introduction of mobile money into the developed world very soon.

The laptop and blackberry of a corporate road warrior used to signal superior status, but the flexibility, personality and sheer fun of a modern smartphone has completely up-staged these more staid corporate badges. Again, credit goes to Messrs Jobs and Ive for making smartphones irresistible.

Virtualisation Technology allows IT to control only the things it needs to

Virtualisation technologies have also been around for years. However the old command and control mindset meant that the vision being sold was one of ‘thin clients’ reminiscent of the dumb terminals of the mainframe era. The thin client concept gave IT even more control over the end user experience, dictating exactly what end users could see and do on their computers, wiping the slate clean every night and recreating a pure, unsullied desktop every morning. Great for call centre workers in daily contact with sensitive data, not so much fun – or necessary – for the rest of us.

The real power of virtualization comes with the combination of a virtual private network (VPN) and a virtual desktop to allow users to access the applications and data they need from any machine while letting them install games, photos, and music to their hearts content.

Of course this creates risks in itself – how do you prove the software on an unlocked machine is legal? What if an employee downloads something illegal onto their machine? To deal with this problem, many firms are allowing themselves to lose control even further and are contemplating requiring employees to purchase their own IT equipment – the ‘bring your own device’ (BOYD) revolution.

Corporate content will be delivered in a strictly controlled way over the VPN, while the computer itself, the hard drive, the processor etc belongs purely to the user.

But does this really amount to a paradigm shift? And has it really occurred in the space of just one year, 2011?

I would argue yes.

The traditional way of approaching end user computing was for IT departments to hoard control and maintain a certain mystique around the technology they commanded. This article published in February 2011 in ITPro epitomizes the old command and control approach as it discusses how to secure mobile devices, while this article, published in October 2011 on the same website positively urges IT Departments to forgo control and embrace diversity through BYOD while ensuring data is secure through the use of virtualization technologies.

Kylie Fowler
IT Departments, and indeed end users themselves, will be nervous about BYOD for several years to come. Support issues have the potential to cause major headaches, and although it is easy to say that hardware support is the end user’s problem, anyone telling that to a C-Suite Executive who can’t work because her computer has broken down will find their career cut nastily short! Adoption of BYOD may be slow and piecemeal in conservative industries and companies, but I have little doubt the revolution will happen.

So 2011 is the year in which the irresistible force of consumer demand met the seemingly immovable object that is IT Departments’ ownership over end user technology and IT Departments realised they can, and indeed must, cede control.

A momentous year indeed!