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With Amazon's EC2, Google's AppEngine, and now Microsoft's Azure, cloud computing looks a lot less like some catch-all concept in the distance and more like a very real architecture that your data center has a good chance of being connected to in the near future.
If that happens, more than the technology must change. The IT organization, and how IT works with business units, must adapt as well, or companies won't get all they want from cloud computing. Putting part of the IT workload into the cloud will require some different management approaches, and different IT skills, from what's grown up in the traditional data center.
These include strategy questions, such as deciding which workloads should be exported to the cloud, which set of standards you want followed for your cloud computing, and how you'll resolve the knotty issues of privacy and security as things move out to the cloud. And there's a big question of how, and how quickly, business units get new IT resources. Should they help themselves, or should IT remain a gatekeeper?
There are different vendor management skills. Staffs experienced in managing outsourcing projects will find parallels to managing work in the cloud, like defining and policing service-level agreements. But there's a big difference in that cloud computing runs on a shared infrastructure, so it's a less-customized deal. Some compare outsourcing to renting a house and the cloud to getting a room at a hotel.
With cloud computing, it may be more difficult to get to the root of any performance problems, like the unplanned outages we've seen this year of Google's Gmail and Workday's human resources apps. Monitoring tools are available to give the cloud customer insight into how well the cloud workloads are performing, so customers aren't totally dependent on the say-so of a cloud vender. But remote monitoring app performance--seeing the app performance an employee or customer sees in response times and expected results--may be a skill that IT staffs must still develop.
Many existing data center skills will apply to cloud work, in slightly modified form. Since clouds are highly virtualized environments, the x86 and virtual server expertise IT has built in recent years may transfer into creating the "virtual appliances" that are shipped off to run in the cloud.
But that also leads to a change--and a need for increased collaboration across disciplines. When constructing a virtual machine for use in the cloud, it may be critical for a system administrator, network manager, and information security officer to collaborate up-front on the design of specific VM types. These templates of servers--golden images--will become the guide used over and over as thousands of VMs are cloned from the pattern captured in the template.
In the past, these skills have been applied at different times in the provisioning of a server, with the security officer too often coming in at the end to inspect other people's work and impose any overlooked security measures. As virtual machines get cloned by the dozen, there's no chance for errors of any kind to be caught just before deployment. The three crucial disciplines must work together interdependently.
Understand, cloud computing isn't yet a reality at most companies. But that could change fast. This year, almost half of companies (46%) say they'll use or are likely to use cloud CPU, storage, or other infrastructure services, given the economy, according to an InformationWeek Analytics survey . A year ago, less than a third (31%) had that positive view. For software as a service, 56% will use it or are likely to.
There are still plenty of doubters. Variable computing capacity like Amazon's EC2 has its niche, but legacy enterprise apps aren't leaving the data center, and you can't send critical business data to the cloud. But looking at the services being offered by Amazon, Google, and Microsoft--whose Azure cloud platform goes into full production Jan. 1--others see new, overpowering economies of scale. Listen and you can already hear authoritative voices saying cloud computing is changing the way they view IT--and how IT will be viewed at their companies.
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