Apr 14 2011

Shifting Skill Sets

Cloud computing deployments require a different sort of IT expertise in federal agencies.

Cloud computing changes everything. It makes federal IT departments more nimble and offers greater computing resources at less cost, while giving large organizations the ability to turn on a dime as their technology needs change. The cloud model also alters the kinds of skills and personnel needed to drive IT departments forward.

The skills agencies will need may vary depending on whether they're building a private cloud or subscribing to services from a commercial provider, says Mark White, chief technology officer of Deloitte Consulting’s technology practice.

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“For instance, an organization focused on building a private cloud must transform its IT group into a cloud service provider. They'll need the same kinds of expertise they developed in growing their data center — skills in consolidation, optimization and virtualization,” says White. “But they'll also need the talent to do fairly sophisticated operations and application automation, as well as server provisioning and de-provisioning, and service management.”

Organizations or agencies that plan to rely more on public cloud providers, especially for basic infrastructure needs, will probably need fewer operations people to maintain, patch and upgrade systems, White contends. But they will still require people with expertise in creating a catalog of cloud services, managing subscribers, brokering agreements with cloud providers and intervening when problems arise.

From the Clouds to Space

For nearly three years, IT staff at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory have been experimenting with a mix of commercial and private clouds for different purposes, says Tom Soderstrom, chief technology officer for IT at JPL. For example, to plan daily activities for the Mars Rover, JPL relies on an application it developed and hosts in the public cloud. JPL hosts applications in many major commercial clouds already. For more sensitive data, it's building a private cloud with Lockheed Martin. 

The traditional requirements of systems administration remain, such as security and maintenance, Soderstrom says. “The change is where that [maintenance] happens,” he says. “A sysadmin becomes much more like a cloud capacity planner — a more valuable role for them in the organization. Similar changes will occur for other roles, such as procurement and legal.”

Because cloud computing enables individual users to order up computer capacity or services with little or no input from IT, tech groups must evolve into consulting organizations if they want to survive, Soderstrom adds.

“The business side now has the tools to do things all on their own,” he says. “As a consulting organization, IT can talk with the business side, discuss what it is they really want to do and get started much faster than they could before. If IT doesn't want to assume that role, it's at risk of becoming irrelevant.”

Yet as agencies move into the cloud, the biggest changes may be cultural, says John B. Owens II, CIO for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The USPTO is moving the next iteration of its Trademark Depository Retrieval system into the cloud (the TDR system allows the public to look up patent registrations online). Owens says agencies must be willing to relinquish some control over the systems that house their sensitive data.


"In the federal government, the traditional culture is to control everything and not trust anyone else to have access to it," Owens says. "They have to be able to see it and touch it. But with the cloud, we're talking about never seeing the hardware, never touching the operating system.” This loss of control poses the largest impediment federal agencies have in moving applications or computing power to the cloud.

Another big cultural change: As agencies outsourced more and more technology operations to third parties over the past decade, they lost touch with the technology that housed their mission-critical apps and became too reliant on outside experts, Owens says. With the cloud, you can't just hire a consultant or outsource to a commercial cloud provider and call it a day. Everyone in IT needs to understand the cloud on a fundamental level before they can evaluate what services to use. 


Growth in job listings posted in 2010 requiring cloud computing skills

Source: Dice.com

“When NASA needs to determine whether a rocket is acceptable, they use a rocket scientist,” he says. “You need people who are highly educated in the fundamentals of the cloud to manage the development or receipt of cloud projects.” 

And that means everyone, from the support rep to the CIO, needs to be trained in what the cloud is and what it can do for their organization.

“The cloud puts greater demands on both your technical and your business of IT skills,” says Deloitte's White. “If you're the CIO, you'll have to take your sophistication up a notch.”