Cloud computing and the big rethink: Part 5

There are tremendous technical and market pressures toward "downsizing" the traditional server operating system and "virtual machine." What does that portend for the future of computing and IT as a profession?

James Urquhart
James Urquhart is a field technologist with almost 20 years of experience in distributed-systems development and deployment, focusing on service-oriented architectures, cloud computing, and virtualization. James is a market strategist for cloud computing at Cisco Systems and an adviser to EnStratus, though the opinions expressed here are strictly his own. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET.
James Urquhart
5 min read

To date, this series has tried to guide you through the changes happening from the infrastructure, developer, and end user perspectives that signal the demise of the full-featured server operating system and the virtual server. Virtualization, and the large scale, multi-tenant operations model we know and love as "cloud computing," are enabling IT professionals to rethink the packaging, delivery, and operation of software functionality in extremely disruptive--and beneficial--ways.


So, what does this mean to the future of information technology? How will the role of IT, and the roles within IT, change as a result of the changing landscape of the technology it administers? What new applications--and resulting markets--are enabled by the "big rethink"?

Here are just a few of my own observations on this topic:

  1. Software packaging will be application focused, not server focused. As anyone who has deployed a distributed application in the last two decades can tell you, the focus of system deployment has been the server, not the application, for some time now. In the highly customized world of IT systems development before virtualization and the cloud, servers were acquired, software was installed upon the servers in very specific ways, and the entire package was managed and monitored largely from the perspective of the server (e.g. what processes are running, how much CPU is being used, etc.).

    As OS functionality begins to get wrapped into application containers, or moved onto the hardware circuitry itself, the packaging begins to be defined in terms of application architecture, with monitoring happening from the perspective of software services and interfaces rather than the server itself. These packages can then be moved around within data centers, or even among them, and the focus of management will remain on the application.

    That's not to say that no one will be watching the hardware. Infrastructure operations will always be a key function within data centers. However, outside of the data center operations team, it will matter less and less.

  2. Enterprise IT will begin to bend enterprise and solutions architectures to align better with what is offered from the cloud. I may not agree with some that the cloud will stifle differentiation in software systems, but one thing is very true.

    As end users select software-as-a-service applications to run core pieces of their business, meet integration and operations needs from the cloud, and generally move from systems providers to service providers, the need to reduce customization will be strong. This is both to reduce costs and strengthen system survivability in the face of constant feature changes on the underlying application system.

  3. The changing relationship between software and hardware will result in new organizational structures within the IT department. When it comes to IT operations--specifically data center operations--we've generally lived with administrative groups divided along server, storage, and network lines from before the dawn of client-server application architectures.

    This organization, however, is an artifact of a time when applications were tightly coupled to the hardware on which they were deployed. In such a static deployment model, expertise was needed to customize these technologies in pursuit of meeting specific service-level goals.

    When you decouple software deployment from underlying hardware, it begins to allow for a re-evaluation of these operational roles. Today, most companies are already in a transition in this respect, with increasing reliance on roles like "virtualization administrator" and "operations specialist" to fulfill changing needs.

  4. The changing landscape of software development platforms will result in new philosophies of software architecture, deployment, and operations. I'm thinking here primarily of two things.

    First, agility will become king in large-scale systems development for classes of applications ranging from web applications to data processing to core business systems. Agility from the service provider's perspective, in the frequency in which they can release features and fixes. Agility from the perspective of the enterprise developer, through the ways in which they can rapidly iterate over the write-build-test cycle. Agility from the perspective of the entrepreneur, in that data center services are now a credit card away.

    Second, I think project management, whether for commercial offerings or for custom enterprise applications, will see rapid change. Agile programming and project management methods make a ton of sense in the cloud, as do service-oriented approaches to software and systems architecture. Project managers wondering what cloud computing will do to their day-to-day jobs should consider what happens if development can outpace a Gant chart.

  5. The need for tactical systems administrators will be reduced. I've written about this in the past, but the tactical system administrator--the man or woman who grabs a trouble ticket from the top of the queue, takes care of the request, closes the ticket, then takes the next ticket from the queue--is going to largely (though probably not entirely) go away.

    Why? Automation. Most of the tasks such an admin does day to day are highly automatable: provisioning, failure recovery, scaling, infrastructure management and so on. These administrators are among the last "clerks" in business, and a result of the unfortunate fact that IT has been excellent at automating everything in business--except IT.

    Where tactical systems administration will still be needed, however, is in what I like to call the "private cloud operations center," a concept similar to the network operations centers that exist in many Fortune 500 companies today. There, the administrator would monitor overall performance of applications running in the cloud (on both internal and external resources), as well as monitoring the performance of the cloud providers themselves.

There are a lot more forward-thinking thoughts that you and I could probably come up with when we think of the demise of traditional IT in favor of a lean, tight, cloud-oriented IT model. However, the great thing about being involved in cloud today is that the ground is shifting so fast, that I find myself changing many of the long-term predictions I made last year. I wouldn't presume to be able to see the future clearly in the face of cloud computing, but many of the key drivers are already out there.

The trick is to be open-minded about what you see, and to be willing to "rethink"...big.