Enterprise architects have often been their own worst enemies, says Mark Egan, CIO of EMC VMware, the company most responsible for the spread of virtualization in IT environments. "It takes really top technical skills to be able to master the technical aspects, but you find a lot of people with that level of technical understanding don't want to talk to anyone," Egan says. "They might just want to sit and draw out systems on paper and not know how to get anyone to want to work with them."
But in an organization whose IT infrastructure is heavily virtualized, abstracted, and split among internal and externally housed cloud platforms, the most important IT staff job -- hands down -- is the enterprise architect, Egan says.
Architects -- system, database, network, or otherwise -- are typically systems designers whose jobs are highly conceptual, but also very concrete, says Chris Wolf, a virtualization and cloud analyst at Gartner. "Underneath all the abstraction there is just as much of a need to manage the details of resource management and performance as with physical servers," he says. "Instead of only having to deal with the number of variables you might have within one server farm or data center or smaller set of servers, in a cloud-based infrastructure you can allocate resources like memory or CPU cycles or bandwidth or I/O across the whole organization. That's a far more complicated picture."
Within a cloud infrastructure, the relationships among applications, networks, and servers are far more complex than traditional infrastructures because there are so many additional connections, says Rachel Dines, an infrastructure and operations analyst at Forrester Research. That means architects are essential.
Despite the abstract notions that people typically associate to architects, the reality is that much of the job focuses on the critical details than enable everything to work well. For example, "people tend not to think of performance tuning in cloud or virtualized systems," says Patrick Kuo, an independent consultant who has helped build Web and virtual-server infrastructures at Dow Jones, the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Defense Information Services Agency.
He advises that you start with the right servers and processors -- make sure each has enough power, memory, and cache, and that network connections are reliable and fast -- then split major functions and distribute each across the infrastructure to help avoid bottlenecks from weak links in the computing chain, or concentrations of too many workloads in one place, Kuo says.
"We've been able to get better performance in many case with a four-tier architecture instead of your typical three-tier, putting a layer of caching in the front, then the apps servers holding most of the logic, then the Web servers and a replicated database backing them up. It's all n-tier application design, but it has to be done differently in virtualized environments like cloud services or you get bottlenecks in places you wouldn't think would cause problems," Kuo says.
Winners: System administrators
Other than architects, the jobs undergoing the greatest change as cloud encompasses the data center are those involving hands-on system administration.
Architects may design and tune cloud infrastructures, but system administrators do the detailed work of spreading workloads across servers, virtual servers, and data centers, assigning CPU cycles, memory, storage, and other resources as needed to keep performance high.