The approaching datacenter zombie apocalypse

The approaching datacenter zombie apocalypse

Summary: If IBM's recent workforce rebalancing act is any indication of future trends, then we're going to see an awful lot of vacant datacenter space and vacant datacenter jobs.


Zombie TV shows and movies are all the rage again.

The Walking Dead, AMC's adaptation of a popular series of comic books, is one of the hottest series on cable television. And, of course, even HBO's hit fantasy series Game of Thrones has "zombies" of sorts in it, as well.

The ultra-camp Zombieland (2009) did huge numbers at the box office. World War Z, the film adaptation of Max Brooks' novel of the same name, starring Brad Pitt, opened in theaters in the US this weekend to larger-than-expected turnouts.

Unless you have skill sets that are easily translatable to income in cloud and big data, you're probably going to end up as dead wood.

Like vampires, the re-animated undead have been a fascination of horror aficionados for decades, but they've undergone something of a renaissance in the last 10 years or so, largely credited to the underground success of 28 Days Later, a 2002 British horror/SF film that brought about the nouveau, extremely fast-moving zombie rather than the traditional, slow-moving one.

Regardless of the nature of the zombies in question, the premise of much of the zombie genre shares a common theme: Some sort of apocalyptic event causes a large portion of the human population to die/get sick/go crazy and become mindless, flesh-craving zombies, destabilizing and depopulating modern civilization as we know it.

Only a few can survive due to their agility and ability to adapt to a rapidly changing environment and escape the mindless hungry throngs, thus avoiding becoming part of the zombie all-you-can-eat buffet.

(Image: CBS Interactive/ZDNet)

I gave this some thought, and it occurred to me that in real life, we are also due for a zombie apocalypse of sorts. Not human beings becoming zombies, but a depopulation event that will fundamentally change the IT industry as we know it.

As in the zombie movies, only the most agile and adaptable are going to survive it.

During my five-year tenure at IBM, beginning in the summer of 2007, I was heavily involved in the business of consolidating and relocating datacenters and performing different kinds of IT transformation and migration types of activities.

Fortune 500 companies engaged IBM's Global Technology Services (GTS) organization to significantly reduce the footprint of their server population through the use of virtualization technology, such as VMware and various UNIX-based and mainframe hypervisors, combined with with actual headcount reduction and using IBM's own datacenters and operations staff in their Strategic Outsourcing (SO) division.

These were very large, long-term projects that netted a significant amount of revenue for the company in the form of hardware, software, and services. For a time, we had many such deals running concurrently.

At the time I left the company, the pipeline began to run dry, and we started to look into ways we could use those skill sets of IT practitioners in doing other things, such as private cloud implementations.

Over the last six months, I've been hearing from my former colleagues that things have really, really slowed down since I left.

While there are a number of long-term contracts still in play, large deals of the kind I participated in are not being signed, as potential customers have throttled back on IT spending. Rather than consolidating datacenters, they are starting to move more and more resources to the cloud.

In the cloud, they can take advantage of self-service and pay-as-you-go infrastructure using the existing applications that they have today, and are willing to do more with less, putting transformation activities off for the time being.

That includes laying off some of their own staff, and deciding not to outsource as much to large services players like IBM as they used to.

My concerns were confirmed this week, when Armonk announced that a large number of "Resource Actions" would take place, which would penetrate heavily into the services part of the company.

We don't really know what the totals are; some friends are telling me it could be 20 percent or more of the Global Services workforce over the next two years or so. Jobs overseas are going to be dinged the most, but domestic jobs are going to get hit, too.

And unless you have skill sets that are easily translatable to income in cloud and big data, you're probably going to end up as dead wood.

It probably goes without saying that if the healthiest and largest of the consulting and professional services firms in our industry is going through a preventative workforce rebalancing act now, then I shudder to think about what the weaker ones are going to eventually have to do.

Or what the fate of the rank and file of many of the people who work in corporate datacenters and have sysadmin and implementation roles is going to look like, for that matter.

Like World War Z, it isn't going to be pretty.

Just as I described a bleak future for retail, with shopping malls becoming desolate wastelands due to the ever-increasing movement toward e-commerce, the majority of corporate datacenters are also going to be vacated due to an ever-increasing movement toward the cloud.

Only large-scale services providers, such as Amazon, Azure, Google, Rackspace, and Savvis, and the Tier-1 telcos like AT&T and Verizon are going to actually be able to afford large amounts of datacenter infrastructure, and will be able to provide the Service Level Agreements (SLAs) that large corporations will expect in terms of resiliency, failover, and response time.

And if IBM's recent acquisition of Softlayer and the forming of a new Cloud Services division means anything at all, it's likely a strong indication that seeing a slump in datacenter relocation/consolidation and business transformation efforts, it would be looking to bring customer virtualized servers in-house, using highly automated provisioning processes that would eliminate the need for a lot of datacenter staff.

I cannot claim to have a crystal ball. But the trends I am witnessing only point to a massive die-off in self-hosted infrastructure and corporate information technology jobs. Only the most highly skilled people are going to be able to adapt to this, much like the protagonists in our favorite zombie movies.

Is IBM's recent announcement of forthcoming layoffs an indication of an industry-wide shift toward large-scale elimination of self-hosted infrastructure and IT jobs? Talk back and let me know.

Topics: Cloud, Big Data, Data Centers, IBM


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Oh Prophet of Doom. Could you be a bit more specific for us neophytes

    That is, for us iPad pushers who don't have a clue as to which career paths we should steer our children away from, a small "in depth" description of the types of skill sets that you expect the zombies to consume in the the near future would be most appreciative.

    For example, I already know not to recommend a career path that requires keypunch operators. If you could "flesh out" a bit more insight, we would surely be most appreciative.
    • IT still ok

      IT jobs will still be there, but the author recommends ironing on cloud stuff, or skills that can be monetized "in the cloud".
      • Cloud and spying

        Does anyone actually want private information stored on the cloud? I know I wouldn't and that's why the cloud will never be a major force in the data center. No corporation wants their private data sitting on a database that is globally accessible and will become prone to hacking.

        Can you imagine the data identity theft issues this will cause?
        • Buzzwords confuse people

          When I started working in telecommunications the 'cloud' was usually used to refer to frame relay networks and the puffy cloud was drawn on white boards to represent unknown aspects of the network, then marketing people got a hold of it and turned it into the buzzword that it is today. The 'cloud' that the article is referring to is basically a server(s) that can be accessed from anywhere, it can still be located in your office and run by your company and it doesn't need to live at and be managed by or IBM. So if you are worried about privacy run your own 'cloud' and place your server or servers at your office or if you need high bandwidth at a Tier 1 provider like Hurricane electric where you can place your server into a steel cage and run directly into some high bandwidth backbone router.
    • save the children

      Operations and the System Admin role will still be important. As Jason said, you just have to be more than a zombie. Many of my sysadmin peers (in general, not IBM specifically) are peole who learned how to do their jobs via experience. Not formal training, but the sysadmin role now requires a great deal of knowlege and skill beyond industry certs and rote memorization.

      While in the enterprise, the numbers will be smaller, the people will be significantly more skilled and formally educated. Just like starteing at the help desk and learning the ropes for a decade will likely have to be replaced with formal sysadmin training at the University level. Check out the SESA2013 conference as an example.
      • forgot

        forgot the disclaimer. I'm an IBMer and what I say is my opinion and doesn't reflect the opionions of my employer.
      • I LAWLed

        " formal sysadmin training at the University level."

        Hilarious! who exactly would hire a college derived SA? You can't teach troubleshooting skills that are only derived from years of experince.
        • There are schools that teach those schools

          Years of experience? Perhaps of if you are going to stumble blindly though it without guidance. Trouble shooting is not some arcane lost art, some universities and even community colleges now teach people these things along with issuing things such as Cisco certifications which include a fairly difficult hands on test.
        • Idea not so funny...

          I'll tell you who will hire the "college-derived SA" -- the company that funnels all the resumes through the HR dept, who use scanners to check for certain words and phrases. In the HR world, certs matter more than years (besides, if you were any good you wouldn't have gotten laid off) and a new college grad complete with certs can be hired at half the price of an SA without certs but with 15+ years in the requisite technology.
    • future path

      I recommend up-and-comers to veer towards the Cyber-Security disciplines.
    • I'll give it a try.

      I didn't write the piece, but here goes: find a field that's currently still hiring. That field is about to automate its way into not needing more than a skeleton crew.
      Shane Simmons
  • The cloud

    is not magic and there is no perpetual motion machine. Moving all of these large datacenter systems to cloud services requires greatly expanding the cloud datacenters. The only difference, for IBM, is WHO operates the datacenter.
  • Only offering an opinion

    Technology development careers require ever-increasing flexibility. The tools & processes used today will become "legacy" fairly soon. This isn't a problem for individuals who thrive on challenge & change.

    As mentioned in the article, the capabilities of automated services are growing rapidly. Corporations are yelling that they need seasoned employees for specialized technical roles, yet I believe most of those assignments will be superfluous within 5 years. The eventual capabilities of intelligent software on fast hardware have no natural limit. Compared to hardware automation (robots), software automation is low hanging fruit.

    Careers that will be slowest to consolidate will be those defined by physical interaction, i.e. nursing, plumber, electrician, business owner, etc.

    Smart, ambitious, adaptable people can find a rewarding career in any field. The rest of us need to worry a bit more.
  • Like BYOD

    Like BYOD, the cloud will soon fade away due to security concerns.
    • and people will come to realize it's Big Iron all over again

      CPU cycles do not magically appear. Workloads conflict and performance issues happen. Isolation is the only way to guarantee the load balancing.
      • So wait... mean just slapping a marketing term on a wide array of services doesn't magically make it different or free?

        Huh. I thought there were clouds where infinite CPU cycles came from, just like the perpetual motion machine that runs my car.

        Yeah, I know. It moves computing from being a capital expense to an operational expense. It's a stupid reason to hand all your sensitive data to someone else.
        Shane Simmons
  • Hype and IBM as the center of the universe

    Once again, a big helping of hyperbole and yellow journalism from Perlow. ZDnet has really lowered their standards.

    Jason, contrary to what your very limited experience and small mind tells you, IBM is not the be-all and end-all of the universe. In fact, IBM has a habit of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. The world has NEVER looked to IBM for trends (well, not since System/360 was eclipsed by Amdahl/470). IBM stopped making PC's, and the PC market exploded. When IBM closed down their hard drive operation in San Jose in the 90's, it ushered in another golden age of innovation and commerce.

    So Perlow should stick to writing about Zombies. Hype, fear, and fantasy seems to be the only things he understands.
    • He didn't say that IBM was the centre of anything..

      He was just making the point that the IT world is changing, and only the 'fast and furious' will survive..
  • LMAO, What is the cloud!

    The first half of this article was more of the authors fascination with zombies.
    My first thought was, Does the author really think there are "Cumulus clouds " out the with electron spins being reversed to store these pile of data? I think it takes things called "Data Centers" to store the ever growing fools that trust there information in someone elses hands.
    The cloud is a security nightmare getting ready to be unveiled. I feel it will be worse then the NSA/Phone data. Since the GOV at onetime required the ability to backdoor, or to have public/private keys of commercial use encryprion. Just think of the goldmine the cloud gives the FBI/CIA/NSA and of course the industrious hacker!
    • Edit

      As I recall, you can edit your own post. Misspelling "encryption" kind of makes you look ... [fill in the blank].