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Do we still need system administrators in the cloud?

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In almost 20 years in IT, I don’t recall ever seeing a time when virtually all major IT vendors have aligned. But cloud computing seems to be different, as every major IT vendor is promoting cloud computing, and the future looks certain to be in the cloud.  As more and more infrastructure, applications and services are moved to the cloud, a natural question arises; do we still need system administrators? I’m going to answer this question for both system administrators and the organizations which employ them.

What do system administrators actually do?

System administrators are the backbone of corporate IT. They’re the people who work hard, often behind the scenes, to keep corporate IT systems up and running 24×7. Typically these are the people who look after server and desktop hardware, virtualization software, operating systems and networks. However some also work at the application level, looking after application runtimes or administering applications such as email systems and CRM systems.

Understanding the technology “stack”

Many companies today still run the full stack of hardware and software internally. By this I mean that in order to provide a business service such as email, the company purchases, installs, owns and operates the whole stack. The following diagram shows a simplified version of the stack involved in providing a typical email service.

The column on the left shows the layers that make up the stack and the corresponding column on the right contains an example of the hardware or software that might be used at each layer.

Note that the purple box on top represents a systems administrator performing an action on the system, in this case creating a new email user account.

Why organizations want to move up the stack?

One of the key reasons companies move to the cloud computing is so that they can move up the stack. They want to outsource some, or even the entire technology stack, to an external vendor. These external vendors can often provide a better service at a lower price largely due to economies of scale. This frees up the company to have less internal IT systems and potentially less systems administrators as well.

How the game has changed

One key change in the public cloud world is that server hardware skills are no longer required by the customer organization. Whether you go for infrastructure as a service (IaaS), platform as a service (PaaS) or software as a service (SaaS), the hardware is always provided by the vendor. Of course if your organization goes down the private cloud path then you will still be operating your own hardware and still need to maintain those skills internally.

With cloud computing, virtualization skills are not necessarily required to the same level as they are in house as the cloud vendor installs and runs the hypervisor. Networking and operating system skills are however still very necessary with IaaS but they do have differences in the cloud which need to be learned and understood.

For companies that move to PaaS then a large part of the stack is taken care of by the PaaS vendor. If you are a system  administrator who is already looking after applications servers in-house,  such as Websphere Application Server (WAS), then administering WAS in the cloud will be quite similar.

It’s important to note the emergence of a number of new PaaS offerings, such as Google App Engine and Heroku, which have been specifically designed for the cloud. They are cloud ports of existing in-house systems so new skills will need to be acquired if you use these types of platforms.

With SaaS the game changes even more.  With all of the lower-level stack layers handled by the vendor, the only administration functions left are the application administration itself such as high-level configuration, maintaining user accounts and so on.

How the role will change

My personal experience has shown me that for most organisations, cloud computing is no longer a case of if, but a case of when. The economies of scale alone make for an almost irresistible value proposition, that the move towards cloud computing seems inevitable.

System administrators will still play a crucial role in keeping many cloud-based systems fully operational. But to varying degrees their jobs will be different from what they are today. And it’s likely that in some organizations their roles will consolidate, especially at the lower levels of the technology stack such as hardware and virtualization.

Learn new cloud skills at no charge

The key for systems administrators themselves is to embrace this change and embrace cloud computing. Many vendors offer trials of their cloud technology. For example IBM offers a no-charge 60 day trial of IBM SmartCloud Engage. So now is the perfect time to roll up your sleeves, get cracking and learn some new cloud skills.

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