The Truth About Enterprises and the Public Cloud

Many companies look to the public cloud to cut costs, overhead and time to deployment. However, businesses need to understand how dramatically a move to the cloud will affect a key constituency: The IT department.

You've certainly heard a lot about the cloud — the public cloud, that is, run by software vendors and outsourced completely. You've heard the standard advice about why the public cloud has certain technical advantages and disadvantages, too. However, there's an inconvenient truth to the public cloud that has been brewing for a while: Its effect on IT pros.

Cloud Vendors Creating False Choices

As part of software companies' push to move their customers to cloud versions of their products, many companies introduce features or capabilities available in the hosted service versions of their programs that aren't immediately available in the on-premises version of the software. In some cases, these features aren't on the roadmap at all to be ported to on-premises systems.

We've heard from Microsoft, for example, that major server products such as Exchange and SharePoint will be as close to feature equivalent as possible. We've even heard promises that new technology such as the Office Graph will be ported back to the boxed software release designed to be run in your server closet. These commitments have been walked back, much to the dismay of existing customers and IT pros.

Public Cloud

It may well be true that some new features in the cloud versions of software depend on massive scale and compute power unlikely to be available in a corporate data center or private cloud — but it's particularly dishonorable to make a commitment to deliver features to both versions of your product, only to reverse that commitment months later because the cloud is the "only place" where such compute resources are available. It's as if Microsoft and other vendors simply don't trust IT pros to make the necessary decisions and deployments to make the technology work, even in large enterprises with big IT budgets.

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What's beginning to happen — and this isn't yet widespread, but that it's a phenomenon growing in frequency — is that these vendors create false choices that harm the reputation of IT pros. As users see new technology in action, they push for access to that new technology, which is becoming increasingly exclusive to cloud software. IT departments resist for both technical and career-related reasons, management intervenes and issues a diktat, and IT is overridden. Users get the features they want, the cloud software vendors get the monthly or annual recurring revenue they want — and IT pros are left to twist in the wind.

Public Cloud Marginalizes IT Professionals

When IT professionals twist in the wind, they can't help but feel marginalized. Decades of experience in deploying new hardware, managing operating systems, automating software deployment — all of those tasks are dramatically less complex, or even eliminated, once a company decides to offload workloads to the cloud. Even patch management is outsourced; IT pros can't control the content or frequency of updates in cloud software, so even if they know users aren't ready for a user interface change or the elimination of a certain feature that's been integrated into their daily workflow, they have no power to stop its rollout.

Additionally, the "enter your credit card and get access" business model embraced by most public cloud operators encourages users to bypass IT departments and just pay for the services they desire. This phenomenon is known as shadow IT. Often, IT departments have good reasons for offering and restricting services, but when users can simply go around them and consume cloud services such as Dropbox, Amazon Web Services and many others, IT professionals are even further marginalized.

The truth is that IT pros are nervous. The cloud puts their traditional roles in jeopardy, and there's no clear path for their careers to evolve. This is the truth about the public cloud.

Why Makes Private Cloud Different?

Private clouds don't suffer the same perception and trust issues that bedevil the public cloud. While you don't get the benefit of massive scale and the cheaper economics of the public cloud providers in a private cloud, you do get the "as a service" aspects of using cloud technology, along with complete control over the location and security of your data.

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Most of the objections to moving to the private cloud revolve around two major themes.

Private Cloud

First, the initial investment required to deploy a private cloud can be a strain on the IT budget. It requires forward thinking and excess capacity, neither of which is really optimal in the current economic environment. Cloud behavior depends on a medium to large amount of excess capacity; systems that are jammed up and utilized to the max — with no available memory, CPUs above 90 percent and a storage area network that's quickly filling up — aren't good candidates for turning into cloud compute.

Second, while your internal departments and end users will largely benefit from a self-service style private cloud environment where they can just order resources that spin up on their own, someone has to manage that. Typically, the same team responsible for the traditional infrastructure that's not yet ready to move over to the private cloud infrastructure must also manage the infant private cloud, at least in its initial stages. This ends up being more work for an already tired IT department.

Aside from these two main objections, the short- to medium-term future of IT is moving toward these private cloud scenarios, and not the public cloud, for most workloads.

Move to Public Cloud Can't Ignore Human Element

The human element in the decision to go to the public cloud or not has been significantly understated, but vendors are beginning to get the signal and develop messaging to counteract it. Even Brad Anderson, a Microsoft executive who oversees a lot of the cloud product pipeline, had to go on record answering a posed question about whether Microsoft is innovating IT pros and system administrators out of a job.

Anderson's detailed answer is available in a TechNet Blog post, but this one excerpt shows the issue of IT pro job security is a complaint Microsoft hear a lot: "In an industry where job security and career prospects are a regular topic of conversation, I see the future of IT to be brighter than ever. I believe this because the cloud opens up possibilities for IT pros to expand, specialize and grow in ways we haven't even identified yet." He's clearly speaking to the fear of marginalization and replacement that IT pros in large enterprises feel about the cloud.

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The advent of the public cloud brings a lot of advantages, all trumpeted loudly by the players in this market, but it also has its attendant disadvantages that aren't so clearly communicated. Aside from the technical implications inherent in moving to the public cloud, the truth is that we won't see a lot of medium and large businesses move huge amounts of workload to the public cloud because of the human element — the real fears that outsourcing and automation on a grand scale will result in reduced need for staffing and the eventual decline of generic system administration style IT positions around the world.

It is an uncomfortable truth, but a real one, that you're unlikely to recommend a service that will put you out of a job. This is a realistic point not many are discussing, but it's one that's on the mind of every IT pro in the business.

Jonathan Hassell runs 82 Ventures, a consulting firm based out of Charlotte. He's also an editor with Apress Media LLC. Reach him via email and on Twitter. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.

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