How the recession is reshaping IT ops

Tight tech budgets are altering IT in perhaps permanent ways. Datacenter managers must rethink the future

Economic conditions may be even worse than they appear, and that spells significant changes for IT.

Smart CTOs and CIOs are no doubt listening when the great economic minds of our times publicly predict what the next few months might hold. Whether that's the IMF calling the current situation a "Great Recession," Warren Buffett remarking about how the U.S. economy has "fallen off a cliff," or Harvard economics professor Robert Barro saying there's a 20 percent chance we'll sink into a depression, one collective outlook for March is that 2009 is a lost cause in terms of economic recovery.

IT shops simply cannot afford to ignore the world at large, so CIOs are likely to keep purse strings tight for months to come, and as a result, there will undoubtedly be long-lasting changes.

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"It's a very strange environment that's been created," says David Williams, a research vice president at Gartner. "It will definitely reshape IT management and operations in a number of ways. Some will be subtle, some deeper."

Cost-cutting is changing how IT operates
The fundamentals of the economy have changed. With so much financial pressure, IT shops are being forced to make moves that optimize costs much more quickly than they would in an economic boom. Cloud computing, consolidation, and virtualization were already gaining steam, and the recession will kick their adoption into high gear, analysts agree.

"There's an incredible focus this year on driving efficiency," says Rick Villars, vice president of storage systems at IDC. "What this means is reducing capital expenditures and trying to cut operational expenses wherever possible."

To that end, Cisco Systems is planning a big datacenter push this week with virtualization smack in the middle of its strategy. Hewlett-Packard detailed last week new products and services it claims can help customers plan for the economic recovery.

Analyst firms predict that IT shops will turn their budgets toward cost-cutting technologies -- specifically cloud computing, server and storage consolidation, and virtualization -- that will help reduce capital expenditures. IDC projects that IT spending on cloud computing will reach $42 billion by 2012, with cost savings as the primary driver. Gartner predicts that 10 percent of servers will be virtual by year's end, and that number will skyrocket to 60 percent by 2013.

That trio of cost-reducing trends, Gartner's Williams said, "eats away at the role of the datacenter manager. It's a bit unrealistic to say that IT will be thrown away, but it's going to be a harder job than ever."

The shrinking role for datacenter managers
After spending 28 years as an IT director for several large, household-name hotel chains, Jerry Skaare got out. That was two years ago -- well before the Dow cliff-dove below 7,000 -- but even then, Skaare could see that many companies, small and midsize ones specifically, were amid "a slow but inexorable march toward thinking of the datacenter as a utility."

Such thinking would ultimately lead upper management to realize that hosted datacenters could serve customers tremendous scale with such little effort and cost that CIOs simply have to start buying professionally managed services rather than spending resources to do it themselves, Skaare says. "The writing is on the wall. Small and midsize datacenters won't exist very long as companies take a look at why they're managing datacenters themselves."

That will take years, of course. In the meantime, Skaare suggested, during this recession many businesses will shed jobs that simply won't come back. "The next 10 years is not a good time to be a run-of-the-mill server or datacenter manager," he adds. "You've got to be tops, or you'll have to find a new job."

Virtualization, which enables server and storage consolidation, will replace many of the storage and server administration tasks and effectively remove people from the constant tuning, backup, and reallocation of capacity, says Rick Villars, vice president of storage systems at IDC. And if cloud computing usage continues to expand as IDC projects, "there may be less demand for onsite systems management type skills," IDC analyst Lisa Rowan notes.

What responsibilities will remain
Even if economic conditions worsen, datacenter professionals will not be joining the endangered species list anytime soon, though they'd best kick-start something of a personal evolution in job skills now rather than later.

Analysts concur that there is no magic skill set that will make IT datacenter managers indispensable for the duration of a career, but IDC's Rowan suggested learning new technologies, the cadre of Web 2.0 tools included, as a starting point.

IDC's Villars, meanwhile, explains that "IT's job will be managing availability and making sure users have access to what they need and can't get to what they're not supposed to see." Despite the vagueness of the term, Web 2.0 does involve communication and collaboration technologies that are transforming both expectations of information sharing and forcing a rethink of how and to what extent information can and should be managed.

That focus on users also extends to more prosaic areas: IT operations will still be responsible for the last 10 feet of cable, so they'll have to be even more aware of their users' needs, adds Gartner's Williams.

Skaare, reflecting on a career that began in 1981 and was largely spent in datacenters, sees history perhaps repeating itself: "It seems to me this might be a rebirth of the jack-of-all-trades who can interface with users, make the software do what they want, talk to the back-end guys," Skaare says. "Those jobs will be around for a long time."

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