Just as manual labourers were replaced by the machines of industry in the 19th century so certain IT roles will be swept away by cloud computing.

That’s the argument put forward by Gartner research director Gregor Petri – who believes that many roles managing IT infrastructure will all but disappear.

Manual management of IT infrastructure – for instance provisioning additional storage, servers or network capacity for a particular application – will increasingly be automated as software layers in the cloud automatically divert IT resources to where they are needed, he said.

“It is very much like industrialisation,” he said.

“Take the very old example given by Adam Smith of the pin makers who used to take a day to make four pins, then a factory is built that can make 10,000 pins in an hour.

“That is what cloud computing is making possible: you can carry out these computing tasks on an industrial scale.”

Petri said that just as people no longer make pins manually, so in general people won’t perform tasks like monitoring an app’s storage demands and purchasing and installing new storage for it.

“The cloud computing app is already programmed in a way that allows the application to access additional storage when it is needed, as a result nobody is needed to do that anymore,”  he said.

“Cloud is allowing the industrialisation of IT, that is why to some people it is very scary.”

While Petri believes that traditional infrastructure management roles will become all but defunct, allowing IT systems to be run with fewer people, he said it doesn’t necessarily mean the individuals who carried out those roles will find themselves out of the job.

Instead he sees new roles being created that use that individuals’ technical skills to add value to the business, for instance working with managers in other departments to make company IT systems better fit the needs of staff or customers. “People in those roles need to flexible in the idea of what their role is,” he said.

The changing landscape of computing – for instance real-time big data analytics or the provision of scalable cloud services to always connected mobile computers – will also create new roles, he said.

When will it happen?

While today’s cloud platforms are already automatically provision these resources today, Petri said that the effect of this industrialisation of computing will not be felt until more applications are shifted to the cloud.

That could be some time off. Although adoption of cloud services is growing rapidly – Gartner predicts that the market for cloud compute services will grow 48.7 per cent in 2012 to $5bn, up from $3.4 billion in 2011 – spend on cloud services is still only a fraction of global IT spend. However, by 2020 the majority of organisations will rely on the cloud for more than half of their IT services, according to Gartner’s 2011 CIO Agenda Survey.

Will jobs really disappear?

Not everyone is convinced that cloud computing will have such a profound effect on the IT jobs landscape.

Some believe that while roles will likely transition from in-house IT teams to cloud providers as companies consume more cloud services, the roles and demand for skills will remain.

As a TechRepublic reader who works for a large cloud provider pointed out: “I still deal with the daily hands on from thousands of customers / clients, some pretty huge ones at that. Between dealing with their AD, LDAP, Windows / Linux deployments, configuration and code issues, I can say that server administrators will still be needed in fact more than ever.”

Other readers have pointed out that IT roles tend to endure far longer than expected and certain technical skills remain in demand. Old programming languages never die, as another reader points out:”Back in 1977 I attended a COBOL Summer class in my university. The first thing the instructor told us was that it was dead language, as new technologies were pushing it to extinction… Guess what, early this morning I reviewed (part of my duties as a DBA) some SQL embedded in a COBOL program to run in the z196 Mainframe”.