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A cloud hangs over the sysadmin

Reasons to be fearful?

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The IT job sector has been under increasing pressure. A couple of decades ago it was easy to imagine IT as a job for life, but outsourcing, offshoring and the dot-bomb brought wave upon wave of uncertainty to IT professionals.

The past couple of years have seen redundancies in all sectors including IT.

It is not surprising, then, that cloud computing should be met with a degree of scepticism by those closest to the coalface.

Off with their heads

Public cloud services suggest that their jobs will either be done by someone else or automated away completely.

Although private cloud may still be managed in-house, the hatchet of automation still hovers over IT jobs.

This perception is false, however. Cloud computing will not result in job losses, not least because whatever promise such models may hold in principle, they will take years to enact in practice.

The short term is further protected by the sharp increase in demand for IT skills in the UK: in January recruitment company Reed reported that job opportunities were up by 23 per cent over the year before, even if lists of candidates were unnervingly long.

Cloud computing may not be about to put us all out of work, but it may change how some things are done.

Let’s get technical

In other articles we have looked at the kinds of hybrid cloud environments.

What specific skills do hands-on staff need to acquire?

The answer depends on whether we are talking about private or public cloud. In the first, an organisation both manages and exploits the cloud infrastructure; in the second the organisation exploits somebody else’s infrastructure.

Let’s consider the management, then the exploitation of cloud-based resources, whoever owns them.

Cloud infrastructure management means configuring and running a number of servers, networking and associated storage for the dynamic delivery of IT services based predominantly on virtual machines.

Juggling skills

Keeping such an environment going requires technical staff with skills in performance tuning, fault diagnosis and maintenance of both hardware and software.

These are the same challenges faced by data centre staff in the past, but in an environment with fewer servers potentially delivering more uptime.

More insights into required skills can be learned from the High Performance Computing (HPC) community. Rooted in academia and deep research, HPC environments continue to use commodity hardware and operating systems which need to be configured and tuned to maximise their potential.

As the gap between HPC and cloud becomes smaller, skills learned in HPC become transferrable to cloud setups and vice versa, particularly when it comes to capacity planning or configuring for specific workloads such as high-end business analytics.

Going up a level, exploitation of cloud resources is tantamount to execution and management of workloads based on virtual machines.

The workloads may look similar to their physical equivalents, in that they incorporate an operating system and application stack (until somebody manages to do away with operating systems and run applications directly on the hypervisor).

So do the skills. The ability to manage a workload running on a physical server is still required in the virtual world.

Platform as a service – the multi-tenancy, cloud-based equivalent of an application server environment – is an area that will require new expertise.

The future is hybrid

Hands-on commentators such as Mark Mayo suggest that sysadmins need to become better at programming, or at least scripting interfaces between virtual machines and hosted application services, wherever the functionality happens to reside.

None of the old skills are going away in a hurry, but the opportunity exists to prepare for a hybrid future. When it arrives the experts will be those who know how to make the most of increasingly complex IT environments.

It can be easy to find that last year’s must-have certifications are no longer current

As one chief technical officer says: “What really interests me about cloud are the kinds of applications we haven’t even thought of yet.”

We have only just started to consider the potential of public-private cloud architectures, let alone using cloud bursting to distribute small jobs over large numbers of corporate and public servers.

There is no room for complacency. In this industry, as we have seen so many times, it can be easy to find that last year’s must-have certifications are no longer current. The job market may still prove challenging.

But IT administrators who take the time to broaden their skillsets should be in a good position for the future. ®

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