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Do you have the cloud skills to pay the bills?

Would-be cloud architects, developers and IT pros need to understand each layer of the technology stack to be successful in a cloud computing world. Discover those layers in this special report.

Cloud computing, with multitudes of corporate players, enormous growth, and multifaceted technologies, necessitates a high degree of proficiency in order for a person to be a successful IT pro in the new world of cloud computing.

This set of skills can be as varied as the species of insects in a tropical rainforest: Hiring managers must determine what skills are must-haves, while human resource professionals need to understand the difficulties in balancing technical resumes in comparison to non-technical resumes. This variety of skills and understanding of the cloud also touches deeply into marketing, sales, advertising and other business functions. These folks must have a different level of technical understanding in order to properly do their jobs supporting cloud-based businesses.

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The skills needed to be successful in the cloud world are even more diverse than the varieties of cloud technologies. The good news is most of the technology is the same, but the layers are becoming more intertwined.

Systems administration in a cloud environment is, like most enterprise technologies, a diverse task that is often deconstructed and assigned to different people with specialized roles. Because, like in the enterprise, the cloud technologies are heavily interrelated in operations and design, these specialists should have a solid understanding of all the technologies that surround the specialists' layer. Aside from raw hardware, there are four basic layers of technology skills that make up a cloud environment, each with Ogre-like layers within. These are:

  1. The network layer

  2. The virtualization layer

  3. The operating system layer

  4. The application layer

The network layer
The network layer requires a solid understanding of the foundations: TCP/IP, DNS, and associated technologies like load balancing and NTP. Switching and routing are core functions of any network environment (and are no less important to the cloud) but above and beyond the basics is load balancing. A cloud environment is often one of the most complicated networks in existence, especially when that cloud environment is supporting hosting at a company like Rackspace, GoGrid, or Amazon.

The skills needed to be successful in the cloud world are even more diverse than the varieties of cloud technologies.

The ability to competently rework entire networks on the fly is a crucial skill for any network admin in a cloud environment, and it is made all the more difficult by the large and complex load balancing rules necessitated by a multihomed network with numerous ISP connections to the Internet, numerous network devices and numerous core network devices. Having Cisco, F5, and Juniper expertise is a must, and having certifications to back up those skills is a huge plus.

Networking is also important to storage. While not a layer of cloud computing itself, shared storage, over IP or over proprietary protocols, depends heavily on networking and network principles. With the growth of iSCSI-based storage, the lines between storage and networking are considerably less obvious than they were when Fibre Channel was the undisputed king of shared storage. With the impending 10 GB Ethernet explosion just beginning to touch the industry, iSCSI will only gain further traction; thus understanding the network-dependent nature of iSCSI is a critical skill.

The virtualization layer
The virtualization layer is another operations-level component of cloud computing, and it is arguably the layer that has enabled cloud computing to exist in the first place. The ability to deploy large numbers of virtual machines on small, rack-dense hardware has enabled economies of scale that were heretofore unknown. Without virtualization, a single server rack can hold 42 servers (84 with half-depth 1U servers); with virtualization, that same rack can hold 420 (840) servers or more.

While no rack is ever filled to capacity with just servers, most virtualization hosts can also house far more than ten servers each. So while the above may be no more than "fuzzy math," it serves to illustrate the economies of scale virtualization brings to the table.

Furthermore, the remarkable load balancing present in VMware, Xen, and other virtual platforms is a key to fighting the percentages game played out with hardware failures in a large server farm. Having a strong understanding of VMware and Xen is crucial to any cloud computing effort, as these are the big players in the market. One must also understand Parallels, whose Virtuozzo and Server products have long been Web hosting staples and have made the transition to cloud platforms quite well.

The ability to competently rework entire networks on the fly is a crucial skill for any network administrator in a cloud environment.

Once again, an understanding of storage is an important subset of the cloud administrator's virtualization skill set. Connecting the many types of storage (NAS, DAS and SAN) to the virtualization host, properly allocating that storage in the first place, and maintaining connections requires an understanding of both the virtualization platform in use and the general tenets of shared storage. Likewise, an understanding of networking is needed to properly configure the hosts to communicate with each other and for the virtual machines on those hosts to be properly segmented.

The operating system layer
The operating system layer is the simplest on the surface, but arguably the most complex once you delve a bit deeper. There are two basic skill sets for the current market, and most system administrators have familiarity with both: Linux and Windows. While Linux is certainly the biggest player on the block, Windows has up-and-coming potential beyond just the Azure platform (such as entire IT operations moving to the cloud, including desktops).

Setting up a server with the correct applications and settings, ensuring that the system is properly tuned for its environment and role, and maintaining those optimal performance settings requires attention to detail and core skills in the operating system being deployed. A vendor-neutral certification, such as Server+ from CompTIA, or vendor-specific certifications from Microsoft, Red Hat, etc. are good to have in order to provide the paper to prove the skills, but nothing compares to proving one's expertise in the field.

Operating system admins need an understanding of networking, as well as storage and applications, in order to make the aforementioned connections. Because the operating system is the conduit through which applications are deployed, having well-rounded skills in storage and networking is essential to ensuring that cloud services can be optimally deployed, delivered and maintained.

The application layer
Applications, including database applications, are the front-facing side of the cloud equation. Because of the diversity of technologies present here, there is no clear-cut set of application skills to list as "absolutes." Based on the current market, JavaScript, XML, PHP, Ruby, Lua, Perl, and Java are hot languages, while Apache, Tomcat, Rails, and the many flavors of SQL (PostgreSQL or MySQL, specifically) are the back-end infrastructure applications that every would-be cloud developer should have knowledge of. Again, like all of the technologies so far, a fundamental understanding of storage, as well as network and operating system technologies, is essential.

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In all of these spaces, one will note the extensive use of open source technologies. As I've mentioned in other articles, the use of open source stacks has the lion's share of the market at the moment (though Microsoft's Azure platform and others do support a Windows-based cloud environment). With the increase in cloud desktops and complete IT infrastructure options being offered, the rise of Microsoft-based desktop technologies is ensured, though the extent of that rise remains unclear.

Whatever platform is chosen, it is imperative that applicants and hiring managers review their environment, understand the skills that are needed, and engage in clear discussions about what those skills are or will be.

Joseph Foran is the director of IT at FSW, a Bridgeport, Connecticut nonprofit social-services agency. In his role as director, he is responsible for working with executive and line management to come up with cost-efficient uses of technology that will better enable client services, employee efficiency and increased grant revenue. Joseph serves on FSW's Leadership committee, where he advises and collaborates with company management on both technology and business decisions. FSW's services extend across Connecticut from six locations across the southwestern portion of the state.

Prior to FSW, Joseph was an IT manager at filtration manufacturer CUNO, Inc. and at sports league Major League Soccer, and he has been a systems admin with consumer goods giant Unilever, as well as a consultant for the State of CT's Dept. of Corrections, Dept. of Mental Health and Dept. of Education.

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