How to retool your IT skills for the cloud

Keith Fafel entered the world of cloud computing during the summer of 2010, while he was working as a product manager with Rackspace, the San Antonio, Texas-based provider of hosted IT infrastructure services.

At the time, Fafel was working in Rackspace's monitoring services line of business, which provides information on the performance of the hardware and software that Rackspace runs for its customers. Rackspace had begun developing cloud-based hosting services, and it was trying to create monitoring solutions for customers provisioning those cloud-based services so that they could be assured their servers and load balancers were working properly. Fafel says he "inserted" himself in the conversation Rackspace was having on how it would develop monitoring software for the cloud.

"The excitement about the cloud was growing, and I wanted to be in the exciting growth areas," he says.

Fafel, 39, who is now Rackspace's director of product for monitoring services, says the move to develop cloud-based monitoring services was a natural career progression for him. For many IT professionals, however, the move to developing applications and managing infrastructure based in the cloud feels anything but natural. Indeed, it seems downright intimidating, especially in light of all the talk about the possibility of cloud computing eliminating IT jobs.

Fafel and others working in the burgeoning field of cloud computing say the transition from a traditional IT environment to a cloud computing environment doesn't have to be difficult or daunting. They acknowledge it's a dramatic paradigm shift for IT, and they admit that the move will be hard for those IT professionals who dismiss cloud computing as a fad and who are wedded to particular operating systems and technology platforms. But for the IT professionals like Fafel who view adding cloud computing skills as a career opportunity, retooling their skillsets for the cloud will be a relatively straightforward process, they say.

"There's a great benefit today in that there are so many [training] resources available," says Bernard Golden, CEO of cloud computing and virtualization consulting company HyperStratus (and CIO.com blogger). "There are a lot of online resources, and a lot of these products you can use for free or they're dirt cheap. You have a real opportunity to get hands-on experience with a low barrier to entry."

IT professionals interested in learning about cloud computing would be wise to begin their education now, cloud computing experts agree.

"Right now, everyone is doing something as it relates to the cloud," says David Nichols, CIO Services leader for Ernst & Young. "They may have one or two applications in the cloud or are using it for storage. For just about everyone, what they're putting in the cloud is so small relative to the rest of their infrastructure that they don't have to worry about addressing this new business model separately."

The fact that most enterprises and IT departments are currently inching their way to the cloud, as Nichols describes, works to IT professionals' advantage: It takes some pressure off of them. They can learn at their own pace, as opposed to having to quickly come up to speed in the midst of a major cloud transformation. By starting their training now, they can get ahead of the technology curve.

"Cloud is here to stay. It is not a flash in the pan. It is a paradigm shift, and IT professionals need to recognize it," says Andy Knosp, vice president of professional services for Eucalyptus Software, a provider of a platform for private infrastructure-as-a-service clouds. "If they are going to increase their skills and their value in the [job] market, now is the time to get trained."

Here, cloud computing experts offer advice to IT professionals on how they can adapt their skillsets for the cloud, and they describe the impact cloud computing will have on application developers, architects, systems administrators, capacity planners and vendor managers.

Get Your Head in the Cloud

The first step in retooling your skillset for the cloud is to understand the basics: That is, the concept of cloud computing, the different deployment models (public, private and hybrid) and use cases for them, and how the model differs from traditional IT operations.

At its most basic level, cloud computing is a way of dynamically delivering customized IT resources (such as applications, storage and server capacity) over the Internet and "on demand." It relies on virtualization software, which pools available computing resources from many servers, to provide that seemingly instant access to applications, storage or servers.

The reason cloud computing represents such a radical paradigm shift for IT is because of this instant access to scalable IT capabilities that it facilitates. The classic example of this concept is the time it takes to provision a server for a new application. In a traditional corporate IT environment, this process can take weeks: A new server may need to be purchased. Once purchased it needs to be configured and software has to be deployed for it.

In a cloud environment, the server capacity is already in place, and it's virtual. Instead of weeks, it can take minutes to get a server running. The process of provisioning a server to run an app is almost entirely automated, and users only pay for the computing capacity they use, as opposed to paying for all of the capacity that an entire physical server provides.

Cloud computing differs from traditional IT in several other ways. It presents new problems and therefore requires new approaches to solving those problems. For example, when Rackspace began to develop monitoring services for its cloud customers, it looked to traditional IT management and monitoring tools from several major vendors. Fafel says Rackspace quickly realized that those tools, which are designed for enterprises in which there's a known set of users and are managed in a centralized fashion, didn't work in a multitenant cloud environment. Rackspace ultimately decided to use monitoring software from a small cloud company, CloudKick, which it later acquired.

"As you're evaluating solutions to build within the cloud and work within the cloud, you have to be open to looking at startup companies that are just getting off the ground," says Fafel. "That's a hard pill to swallow for many IT leaders."

Select Areas of Specialization and Certifications

IT professionals who understand the concept of cloud computing, its different deployment models and use cases will be able to speak confidently about how their organizations might take advantage of the cloud and the benefits they might derive from it. Talking about cloud computing inside their IT organizations will distinguish them as knowledgeable and can help get them moved onto cloud computing projects, says Golden.

He recommends IT professionals learn about cloud computing's hot areas, such as platform-as-a-service (and Cloud Foundry in particular) and non-relational database management systems such as NoSQL, Apache's CouchDB and Cassandra databases, and Mongo. He also urges IT professionals to learn how to manage cloud infrastructure services environments and the management frameworks that sit around them, whether BMC or RightScale, for example.

All of these recommendations may seem overwhelming. The good news is that resources for you to educate yourself abound.

"It's dead easy to learn those things," says Golden, "because they all have online versions that are dirt cheap."

Indeed, many vendors in the vast cloud computing ecosystem, including Rackspace, Eucalyptus, RightScale, enStratus and Opscode, offer in-person or online training courses, documentation, white papers, demos, webinars and other resources on their Websites. These resources are often free for customers and partners. Sometimes they're free to the public or available for a low cost.

"Most everything an IT professional would need these days is freely available or relatively inexpensive," says Rackspace's Fafel. "You don't need a $5,000 server to help you learn. Launch your Web browser, launch a few servers in the Rackspace cloud, dig into blogs, and absorb as much information as you can."

As you build your knowledge of cloud computing, Eucalyptus's Knosp suggests investigating and obtaining certifications. He said he believes that when employers advertise positions for cloud administrators and architects, they will seek candidates with vendor-specific certifications. IT professionals who hold those credentials will be in a better competitive position in the job market.

Cloud Computing's Impact on Specific IT Jobs

Cloud computing will change some traditional IT jobs more than others. Mark Interrante, Rackspace's vice president of product, advises IT professionals to ask themselves, "Am I in a job where there's a massive amount of change or less change?" To help you answer that question, read the following descriptions of how cloud computing will impact five categories of IT jobs: application developers, systems administrators, architects, capacity planners and vendor managers.

Application Developers

The consensus among cloud computing professionals is that the cloud won't fundamentally change the job of the application developer. In fact, according to HyperStratus, cloud computing will herald a "golden age" for programmers. Because cloud computing makes it easier to provision IT capabilities, the consulting company expects organizations to consume more IT, which will drive demand for application developers.

Developers will need to learn new skills, of course. Interrante says application developers will have to learn a new set of APIs to develop apps for the cloud, but he adds, learning new APIs is a common task for developers. Golden says programmers will have to learn new frameworks, such as Cloud Foundry or PHP Fog, to build applications that are elastic and scalable. They'll have to learn about non-relational databases like NoSQL, too.

Systems Administrators

Cloud computing will change the role of the systems administrator somewhat significantly because it automates the portion of the job devoted to configuring systems. It will make the system administrator's job less about knowing how to run a server, for example, and more about knowing how to run an automated environment that runs the server, says Golden.

"You still need to know how to install and configure Apache," he says. "But more important will be knowing how to automate the configuration and operate the environment. You'll be adjusting Chef scripts instead of doing the hands-on configuration of Apache."

Eucalyptus's Knosp says the systems administrator will become a cloud administrator. "The cloud administrator will combine a variety of different skillsets around systems administration, virtualization, storage and network administration," he says. "The role will be multifaceted. They'll have some level of responsibility for design of the cloud environment. They'll have definite responsibility for administration and ongoing management."

Rich Wolski, CTO and co-founder of Eucalyptus Software, said he believes IT professionals currently working in infrastructure management roles (systems administrators, storage administrators, network administrators) will be able to make the transition to cloud administrator.

"The trend in data center management and construction has been towards automation," he says. "The cloud is sort of the epitome of that automation. Administrators have been going down this path step by step for a decade or more."

Architects

Organizations migrating their applications and infrastructure to the cloud will need cloud architects to help set and drive that strategy, says Knosp. Cloud architects will bring together their knowledge of cloud computing, enterprise architecture, storage, networking and virtualization to develop and execute the cloud strategy.

Ernst & Young's Nichols says cloud architects will also be responsible for figuring out how to integrate disparate cloud applications while maintaining performance and service levels. He adds that the role of the cloud architect will be critical inside organizations once approximately 30% of an organization's IT infrastructure is in the cloud.

Capacity Planners

Capacity planners' role becomes much more important —and more difficult —in a cloud environment. They're trying to predict an organization's need for IT resources, such as bandwidth or server capacity, so that users have the computing power they need when they need it. Accurately forecasting this demand for IT resources is critical because it impacts budgets, but it becomes a much harder task in the cloud, says Golden, because workloads are much more volatile and much less visible. "Your forecasting window is a lot shorter, and the variability of the load is a lot higher," he says.

Vendor Managers

Cloud computing changes the vendor managers' role in two significant ways:

First, the vendors with which they'll be working will change.

"A lot of IT organizations, especially at very large companies, have been used to using the largest of the large consultants, outsourcing suppliers, software vendors and hardware vendors. 80% of their spend is with the very large providers," says Nichols. "When you move to the cloud, you'll have a lot of small companies providing services in ways that haven't been done before."

Second, contracts and payment schemes will be different, notes Golden. Vendor managers will need to know what happens if their company's user base doubles, how that will impact pricing, he says. They'll also need to sort through compliance issues, such as data privacy and security.

The Song Remains the Same

As much as cloud computing transforms traditional IT operations and roles, plenty of activities remain the same, which helps to ease the transition for IT professionals. Infrastructure, applications and vendors still need to be managed and monitored.

Whether you're in a role that cloud computing changes a little or a lot, Fafel's advice for reskilling yourself for the cloud is the same: "Don't fear it. Embrace it. Learn as much as you can, and that way you can secure your career going forward."

This story, "How to retool your IT skills for the cloud" was originally published by CIO.

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