The move towards cloud-based services for big businesses increasingly seems like a matter of "when" rather than "if". But what impact does moving services outside the company have on the people who already have to work on maintaining IT systems?
The benefits of cloud computing are pretty obvious whether you're an individual who is now hooked on Gmail or a multi-country behemoth switching to Salesforce.com. You get redundancy, services you pay for as you need them and the chance to pass a lot of server maintenance hassle over to someone else. But what does it mean if your day job is as an IT worker who previously had to maintain those kind of systems? Are your skills suddenly going to become redundant? How will the focus of your job change? Will you even have a job?
We put that question this week to Raghu Raghuram, senior vice president at VMware. Virtualising IT systems often serves as a precursor to making a broader move into cloud-based and external providers, so the question of how IT worker roles will evolve as that change happens is something he's had to give a fair bit of thought to.
The most immediate impact is in requiring IT departments to improve their performance, he says. "For the first time if you think about it, IT departments have competition. If you think about how IT has worked from a CIO and a CEO perspective, there's very little transparency in terms of what happens inside of IT. The CIO gets to spend two or three percent of the company's revenue and what they get is what they get.
"The emergence of these external cloud services says for the first time IT can be compared against best-in-class benchmarks. You can say 'how much does it cost me as an organisation to run and operate a VM internally, how much does it cost at a service provider, and are those comparable? How much does it cost to run an email box or a CRM app externally versus internally?'
" So we think that in turn is going to make both IT producers and IT consumers a lot more savvy and intelligent about where they put their infrastructure, and how they build out IT, so that's one of the changes that IT has to go through.
"The second change is that IT will have to wear two hats in the future. One is clearly they will continue to build out their own internal services. They're also going to procure IT services from external service providers."
IT will still have a major role to play even if the initial decision comes from elsewhere, Raghuram said. "If a company decides to use a CRM system from Salesforce.com, initially the decision is made at the line of business level, but sooner or later IT has to come into play to say 'what is the SLA and cost comparisons across this category? Ultimately, you will become a broker of external services. For the externally sourced applications, IT will be responsible for managing the sourcing of these and managing the compliance and the sign-on and the authentication and identity and all of those sort of things. You'll have these two roles: one as a provider of services, the other as a manager of external services, and both these roles will be very different going forward."
Given the diversity of knowledge required for all those systems, IT staff may well need to be across more technologies than has been the case in the past. "The desktop guy now needs to know everything about the whole stack," David Hanrahan, GM for virtual data centres at Dimension Data, told Lifehacker.
And in practice, your boss isn't likely to want to dump you immediately; business systems rarely change in a hurry, and keeping existing knowledge in place can be important. As Hanrahan put it: "[Moving to the cloud]terrifies the CIO even more. You've just disenfranchised the guys who did all those key bits." So scrub up on your external provider management skills, but don't throw the panic switch just yet.
Evolve is a weekly column at Lifehacker looking at trends and technologies IT workers need to know about to stay employed and improve their careers.