Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Cloud and the Pendulum

The single greatest challenge with cloud computing is the shear breadth of knowledge required to understand it. Servers, storage, networks, operating systems, application architecture, data architecture, integration, security, identity management, and on and on. And those are just the tip of the technical domains. Although today we see plenty of talk about cloud, the reality is almost all "private clouds" are really just mass virtualization.  Very little has been done in automation and almost nothing with the applications, so calling these environments clouds is misleading at best.  So why are we stuck at the crossroads of virtualization and cloud computing?

I attribute the stall out to the fact so few people are able get their arms around the concepts of cloud and get comfortable. We have seen the entrenchment of fear, uncertainty, and doubt across corporate America. I agree with new technologies a prudent approach is to take it slowly and deliberately making sure the risks are mitigated and lessons learned. What's confusing about cloud is the technology isn't new!  Not a single piece of new technology has been invented for cloud. Cloud is the natural intersection of solving three pressing IT issues of the 1990's: a global corporate footprint, low server and storage utilization, and efficient code reuse. In fact the average IT department got pretty good at dealing with these challenges in the early 2000's, so why the cloud conundrum? Lack of understanding the forest vs the trees.

To me the focus on the trees is the predictable result of taking a specialist approach. Solving problems in engineering typically starts with functional decomposition; breaking the problem down into smaller problems which are easier to solve, and whose solutions can be combined to ultimately solve the original problem. What we forget is the solutions must be guided by a vision and strategy lest we choose a solution incompatible with our desired state. Developing this vision and strategy requires a complimentary set of skills, the breadth of expertise to see the forest.

Virtualization has exploded because it's narrowly focused.  The only teams that are truly involved in virtualization, who need to understand it at the implementation level, are the data center systems engineers.  They have added a new skill set in designing, implementing, and managing these virtualized environments composed of networks, servers, and storage.  However very little imaginative thinking occurs within this domain because, to limit risk, most companies are aligned with proprietary vendor solutions.  And even less imaginative thinking occurs outside the data center infrastructure side because people don't see the applicability.  Cloud today is relegated in the Fortune 500 to data center consolidation, yet the value proposition of cloud is, and always has been, as a global collaboration platform.

What we lack in quantity today are the broad minded experts who can paint the picture of the future focusing on the art of the possible. As everyone has rushed to specialize a rare breed of professional has emerged in IT, often but not always coming from the ranks of the enterprise architects. This knowledge worker has been exposed to every element of the technology and business stacks. Jacks of all trades and masters of some, at some point in their career, by accident more often than intent, they had to learn the job next to them rather than the one above, then the next job over, then the next. What has emerged is a well rounded individual with the capacity to see the world from multiple points of view. Those whose areas of knowledge include hardware and software at their core; rounded by additional knowledge in security, networks, and data; tend to be the cloud experts. Tilt the balance toward software and data and you get Big Data experts, another broad technology. Tilt again toward software, mobile device and networks and it's Mobility experts. Rebalance on software and user experience and the expertise is Collaboration and Social Media.

Companies need to identify their experts and incentivize others to choose a path they might not otherwise. There is a dearth of talent in each of the most discussed technology domains because all are multi-disciplinary in nature. Specialists are still needed where the rubber hits the road, but as companies continue to outsource non-core capabilities, which increasingly includes data center operations, more of those specialists will work for solution providers.

Cloud impacts everything from finance, accounting and tax to HR, legal, and marketing. But nowhere is the impact greater than IT where the very composition of the talent pool has to change and change rapidly. Generalists will pave the preferred path to glory for the next generation of IT talent. And as everything is cyclical, certainly the pendulum will swing the other way just as we think we have it all figured out.

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