The Cloud is Coming!

I recently read an InformationWeek story on cloud computing and their survey of over 500 companies. They found almost 20% of the companies surveyed are already using some form of cloud computing with nearly 35% seriously considering it. Additionally, all major industry players have, or are planning to offer, cloud computing services and a few major corporations have already taken the plunge by signing large contracts for services (e.g. GlaxoSmithKline and the City of Los Angeles each signed multi-million dollar deals to offload email to third party cloud providers.) If anyone had doubts about this technology taking hold, I think it’s safe to say that train has left the station.

For those of you not familiar with cloud computing, think of it as a computer utility, much like electricity: Customers subscribe to one or more computing power providers (i.e. analogous to an electric company) which is delivered over the Internet (electric grid) and paid for only when the computing power (electricity) is used. One difference is that we can only get electricity from the electric company, whereas computer utilities can provide many kinds of applications, data storage or raw computing power for you to use as you please. For example let’s say that for year-end closing you need twice the computing power than what is normally needed throughout the rest of the year. Currently your choices are to build an infrastructure to handle the peak load and have it remain under utilized most of the time or you limit access to the system at year end to only closing related activities.

With cloud computing there is always excess capacity for you to draw on when you need it, and when you don’t, you only pay for the computing capacity you use (actually today, most providers need some advance notice to meet an anticipated demand, but they usually can respond in days whereas companies typically need weeks to months to buy, install and configure hardware for their use.) In our year end closing example, if computing demand doubles, the cloud simply let’s you draw more resource so everyone can keep working. Consequently, as companies move applications to the cloud they can potentially eliminate much of the computing infrastructure they maintain and operate 24/7.

Sounds great, so why hasn’t this taken off like wildfire? Well, the technology is still somewhat new and companies are still evaluating whether it is reliable and cost effective. Perhaps the biggest obstacle is security…. “That’s my data in the cloud and how can I be sure it won’t get into the wrong hands?” It seems certain that within a few years any remaining technology or security concerns will be adequately resolved and companies will have evaluated and accepted any additional risks. Then I expect to see waves of companies divesting themselves of large portions of their infrastructure in favor of the pay as you go computer utility model. Much like the way companies scrambled to outsource IT development and support services to cheaper offshore locations, so too will companies jump on the cloud bandwagon.

What does this mean for the IT professional, especially the IT project manager? For many medium to large sized companies with data centers and operations staff, these areas will shrink considerably with a proportional loss of jobs, just like with outsourcing. Infrastructure project managers will also see jobs vanish as more and more computing power is delivered through the cloud enabling companies to downsize their infrastructure. IT project managers who implement applications will still be in demand, but the focus of their projects will shift from “getting systems up and running” to “seamlessly integrating applications into the business processes.” This means time spent purchasing hardware and software, installing it, burning it in and doing compatibility testing will be replaced by “negotiate computer usage licenses with cloud vendor,” tasks usually done by procurement and senior IT management. To survive, the IT project manager will have to develop expertise in delivering the overall IT service and not just providing a working technology. The emphasis of skills will need to shift from technology to social skills, a high degree of business acumen tand a fundamentally understanding of what is needed for their business to be successful. Increasingly the value that the IT project manager will be measured by their ability to:

  • Help select the right application and configure it to meet the needs of the business
  • Create or modify business processes to support or accommodate the application and changes it will bring to the organization
  • Create organizational awareness and adoption plans for the coming application
  • Train and provide post implementation coaching for users
  • Define policies and procedures to govern application and data usage
  • Ensure proper application support channels are in place
  • Define SLAs with the cloud provider(s) and contingencies if service is interrupted

These are not new tasks for IT project managers since these things are equally important for application implementations today. Unfortunately, many IT project managers tend to concentrate their efforts towards the technology and getting the system installed and working; This, at least, provides a measure of accomplishment. Even with well scoped projects which factor in these requirements at the outset, integration into the business is often downplayed or, since it tends to come at the tail end of the project, gets compressed or eliminated in order to make up for earlier slippage or cost overruns.

The cloud is coming. To end users the change will be largely transparent. Companies should see shorter technology implementation cycles and network security people will be in ever greater demand. But for IT project managers, the cloud is sure to rock the boat. Much of the technical aspects of projects will shift to the cloud provider. What will be left is aligning the application to the needs of the business (i.e. business savvy), creating supporting processes (i.e. process and problem solving skills) and influencing the business to use the application new and innovative ways (i.e. social and marketing skills). To survive the coming cloud wave, many IT project managers will have to shift their thinking and learn new skills. Their value will no longer be measured by their ability to make the technology work, but by how well they can integrate it into the business and demonstrate the value the application adds to the business’ bottom line.

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