Tapping into the cloud and getting a particular business application to run on it isn't as easy as it sounds. It typically requires at least a couple of savvy tech staffers to set up, maintain, and tweak.

By Doug Bartholomew

Because it's a big money-saver for companies both large and small, running application and storing data in the cloud is already producing a rain of job opportunities for software architects, developers, and consultants.

Simply stated, cloud computing enables small companies to harness the power of many big computers at a very low cost. It means start-ups can tap the vast computing resources of companies such as Amazon or Google to handle their computing needs over the Internet. Computing tasks that only a few years ago would have required the purchase of servers and database software can now be performed on a pay-as-you-go basis, with plenty of extra computing horsepower on tap when needed. 

Research firm International Data Corp. has predicted that cloud computing will balloon to a $42 billion market as early as 2012. Last year, Merrill Lynch estimated cloud computing revenues would jump to $160 billion in 2011.

Cloud computing (Tidbit for beer conversations: The term was coined by Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt in 2006) took off in 2007 when Amazon's Web Services unit launched its Simple Storage Service (S3) and Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2). Since then, thousands of companies - mostly small but some larger ones - have tapped into the vast computing and storage capability of the online retail giant. And Amazon's Web Services is one of many cloud platforms being offered by the likes of Google, Sun Microsystems, and others.

The catch? Tapping into the cloud and getting a particular business application to run on it isn't as easy as it sounds. It typically requires at least a couple of savvy tech staffers to set up, maintain, and tweak. Even to use Amazon's EC2, they need to be "pretty knowledgeable," says James Staten, an IT analyst at Forrester Research. Adds Nati Shalom, chief technology officer and founder of Giga Spaces Technologies in New York, "Currently, to utilize the cloud you need a high skillset and a deep knowledge of computing."

What Skills Are Needed

An understanding of the basic Linux operating system helps. For example, the default OS for companies to build cloud-based applications to run on Amazon's EC2 is Red Hat Linux. But many companies are able to adapt their own preferred versions of Linux to run on Amazon's cloud. For instance, Amazon Web Services customer Mashery, which serves as a front end for other companies' Web services, was already using the Linux OS to run its open-source applications.

In most cases, whether it's a simple application or a highly complex one, the user firm will have to create an application first, then upload it to run on the cloud. That's why IT professionals who know how to build cloud applications using open-source tools are in demand. 

At many larger companies, cloud computing typically includes a mix of technologies, such as grid computing, utility computing and virtualization. For this reason, computer professionals who have these skills will likely be needed to help bigger enterprises fully embrace the cloud.

"You don't need special IT skills to use cloud computing, but to implement and manage it takes virtualization technology skills," says Dave Malcolm, Sr., vice president and chief technology officer at Surgient, which provides an automation platform based on server virtualization. "People who are familiar with some of the newer storage technologies out there are better equipped to deal with this new dynamic environment."

Some large firms are setting up "private clouds," enabling their departments and units to run applications on the company's computer infrastructure on a pay-per-use basis, similar to the way they would pay if using a "public" cloud like Amazon's or Google's. Again, establishing and maintaining, as well as creating applications for, these private clouds requires new skill sets that some IT groups may not have. In turn, that creates opportunities for job seekers and consultants.

In many cases, companies are looking to achieve maximum economy and are using open-source software to run in the cloud. Typically, they're seeking professionals with programming skills in JavaScript, J2EE, Flex, Ruby on Rails, Python, HTML, and XML, as well as open-source tools such as Hadoop.