Is Your Info Tech Head Way Up in the Cloud?

With the exception of health care, perhaps no industry better withstood the Great Recession than information technology. The industry took on added importance during the slowdown, as businesses leveraged their technology assets to maintain productivity with fewer employees, and thanks in part to innovations like cloud computing, that dynamic continues.

One telltale sign is continued strength in IT staffing, due in part to a cycling up of project demand. "Part of the reason for that is that economic uncertainty actually helps promote the use of contract workers," explained Paul Heberer, a partner with TeamSoft, which is part staffing agency, part IT consultant. "I went back and looked at our numbers, and our lowest point in the recession was October of 2009. Since then, we've grown 81%, so it's been a solid recovery from an IT staffing standpoint."

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the overall unemployment rate in June was 9.2%, but the rate for technical professionals was 3.3%; anecdotally, more women are entering male-dominated technical fields, as TeamSoft reports that women now represent 30.2% of the people it hires.


Cloudy forecast

Cloud computing, also known as software as a service, enables companies to have systems and data run on an off-site server that they can rent or lease, and it has become a service provided by IT players like Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and others.

Heberer said there are three primary reasons businesses would consider moving systems to the cloud: for disaster recovery, which requires an off-site data center (Heberer describes the cloud as a virtual data center spread across the United States); to handle spikes in demand; and to reduce infrastructure costs.

When it comes to handling spikes in demand, a Madison-based company called StudyBlue, Inc., which provides educational services to high school and college students, relies on the cloud because demand for its services can fluctuate substantially on a given day and throughout the school year. StudyBlue has decided to put most of its data on the cloud through Amazon Web Services because it can pay to increase capacity when it needs to, without having to buy hardware and software internally and maintain it just for infrequent spikes.

For start-up companies, the prospect of losing customers because they lack sufficient data throughput is very real. Sean Laurent, director of operations for StudyBlue, said the company can launch additional servers to meet demand and scale its server infrastructure up or down relatively easily. "When we see that usage has reached a certain level, we automatically launch another Web server to handle the demand," he explained, "and when usage drops back off, we shut down one of the servers. That gives you the ability to both control costs and to know you can easily scale up to meet that demand."

A third reason cited for moving data to the cloud, reducing infrastructure costs, is not entirely proven. While cloud computing has helped StudyBlue, Laurent agreed that it's not for everybody. "If you are a company that has got a stable user base that is not growing significantly or changing dramatically or doesn't fluctuate much, then it's probably not a good fit," he explained. "If you are a start-up business and you're growing, especially where you may not want the capital expenditures or don't have upfront cash to buy a lot of hardware, it's huge."

Secure feeling

Hackers are no doubt looking at the cloud as a potential entry route to corporate systems. Any business considering the cloud has to look at security options offered by potential vendors, but while the cloud is going to have the same problems as internal hardware in cases where employees are careless with security procedures, the security advantage of the cloud is that you can centralize your security systems with applications and data residing in one place, according to Raj Kamal, head of the consulting group at Beacon Technologies. "Think of all the gold in Fort Knox," Kamal said. "It's much easier to protect one Fort Knox than it is to have the gold spread over 5,000 small banks."

Rick Roy, CIO of CUNA Mutual Group, said the biggest issue for his organization is whether the cloud vendor is willing to sign up for the security liability and the service levels needed in a regulated industry. "We clearly have the technological capability to do many things in the cloud, but I don't think the business and legal sides have caught up with the technology," Roy said. "Would you be willing to sign a contract with me that gives me the legal protection I need in the event you get breached? Most providers are balking at signing up for that, but the reality for companies like ours is we carry that liability regardless, so if my technology partner is not willing to take accountability, I might as well keep it in-house because I can control it."

Kathy Argall, CEO and primary consultant for InfoSec Compliance Advisors, said business leaders should not use security concerns as an excuse to shy away from beneficial new technologies like cloud computing. "You have to find a way to make it work," she advised. "With more people using cloud computing because of the efficiencies associated with it, the cloud is becoming a popular target for hackers, just like mobile devices have. If nobody was using the cloud, hackers would not bother trying."

In my estimation

The IT skills and jobs in most demand in the Greater Madison market include Java and Microsoft .NET skills, plus project managers, business intelligence specialists, and network engineers, but it's not unusual for chief executives to scream, "My kingdom for a good software estimator!"
While business organizations are getting better at effectively using technology and avoiding failed IT projects, software estimating remains an imperfect science. The difficulty with governance, forecasting, and managing software projects continues to bedevil both information technology departments and upper management, which expects the same precise, upfront cost and date-of-completion estimates from IT that it does from other areas.

For a variety of reasons, that pure and upfront estimation has always been difficult in the technology field. Robert Merrill, principal of uFunctional, LLC, a Madison-based consulting practice, said the human factor in software estimation has proven to be stubbornly unpredictable. In addition, with the software market consistently voting for speed, productivity, and flexibility over predictability, and with a multitude of programs and languages, there are a lot of moving parts to integrate.

Agile software development has emerged as an alternative, enabling teams to move incrementally through a project. "Agile, if done fully, is variable in scope, with frequent feedback from users, and rigorous quality management," Merrill said. "If you're doing all those things, you're agile."

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