Friday, October 12, 2012

Will the cloud be the end of the IT department?

One of the great promises that cloud vendors make is that the adoption of cloud computing greatly reduces IT costs for any company. A crucial part of this promise, that you can find on most "cloud cost calculators" available on the web, is the reduction in manpower costs. If you host a server internally, you need a System Administrator to manage that server; if you hire a virtual server with the same specifications from a public cloud provider, you don't need anyone, and whatever you were going to pay that person becomes "cost savings". This naturally leads us to the following question: Will cloud computing be the end of the conventional IT department?

If we follow the vendor's logic to its final conclusion, we would end up in a situation where the only place where one could find infrastructure (server, networking, even operating systems) management jobs would be with the cloud infrastructure providers themselves. These crucial areas of IT would essentially disappear over time, as jobs became more and more scarce. The idea of not needing IT is a double-edged sword: on one hand, business users, especially those that have a poor relationship with IT, find this very appealing, and use it as a big reason to promote the cloud; on the other hand, it generates resistance from IT departments, who understand that the whole idea of not needing anyone is just a myth.

Reality check on cloud servers and apps

Several of the assumptions people make about cloud servers are simply not true, and some are actually being actively denied by cloud vendors. Backup is one such assumption. Many people still assume that cloud servers are automatically backed up, don't set up any kind of backup scheme, and end up losing a lot of data. The fact is that cloud providers don't perform any kind of automated backup unless you explicitly ask them to do so, which is something most users forget to do.

Security management is another issue. It's easy to think that, since your server is hosted on someone else's infrastructure, they'll worry about all the security matters for you, but nothing could be further from the truth. When you hire a cloud server, most cloud providers will deliver a virtual server with some sort of remote connection enabled. This means that, unless you set your server up behind some sort of firewall or with protection rules, it is basically open to attack from outside as soon as it goes up. While I don't have any stats on this point, I've seen some servers I set up with FTP access being attacked less than five minutes after going on-line.

This means that having someone from IT managing your servers, even the hosted ones, can be very important. Sure, you can do it yourself, but then you're in the same position as if you'd been trying to manage an internal data center yourself. The fact is that, for most people, a cloud server is just like an internal server, only it gets "stored" somewhere else. This means you need a systems administrator just as you would on any other server.

Cloud apps are, in a sense, even more problematic. With whom does responsibility for the environment reside? What happens if a user accidentally deletes important data or a user account gets broken into? Proper management of passwords, backup policies, access control strategies, and other issues is even more important. Solution providers limit their responsibility to making your data available at the predefined SLA; they say absolutely nothing about backing your data up, or being able to restore it later. The same goes for managing users and passwords: the responsibility is entirely on the hands of the user. If all your accounts are configured with default or weak passwords, you're running a real risk of someone invading them and stealing sensitive data.

As more and more data moves to cloud apps, they are becoming interesting targets, and attacks will take an upward trend. This means that, more than ever, you need IT people to manage your cloud application environment, just as you needed people to manage your infrastructure.

A changing landscape

The cloud, then, does not threaten IT jobs, nor does it reduce the importance of IT departments. If anything, the short-term trend is an increase in importance as users realize that they need the help of IT to manage the complex server and application environments that are being created ad-hoc in their rush to move to the cloud.

As with most new technologies, cloud computing won't promote a destruction of IT jobs, but rather a change in their nature. Just as developers have to adopt new mindsets to develop cloud-based applications and services, DBAs will have to adapt to cloud-based and big data oriented systems, and system administrators will move from the low-level infrastructure issues (which will be more and more the exclusive province of large providers) to managing complex environments, spanning multiple applications, cloud providers, virtual and physical servers, and even merging the internal data center with the public cloud.

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