The approaching datacenter zombie apocalypse

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.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

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.

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