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What Separates a Good Cloud Architect from a Great One?

Dec. 16, 2020
Jeff Peters

Let's start with defining the job of a cloud architect. You are responsible for planning, designing, migrating, and implementing cloud-based infrastructures, but the effectiveness of these specialists is not guaranteed. This is a job that requires consistent motivation to evolve and improve, so acquiring the job title of cloud architect or hiring someone with that title does not ensure truly successful design implementations.

Multiple factors separate the good from the great when it comes to this job. Training and certification are nearly essential due to the massive spectrum of services available. Learning them on your own would be a full-time job in and of itself. Additionally, there are strategies and approaches specific to cloud architecting that are not technically required but pay major dividends when it comes to administration and security.
Enterprise IT continues to lean heavily into cloud usage, and the demand for cloud architects continues to rise. What do successful cloud architects do to be highly successful?


You Take Full Advantage of the Cloud

A good architect launches servers in the cloud.

When you do this, you're taking advantage of the fact that you are offloading responsibility for hardware on to your cloud provider. This is an excellent first step, but you can't stop there. Lift and shift migrations are common and use this strategy: Take what you have on-prem and move it with little to no change to the cloud.


This is not a bad move, but you are not taking full advantage of the cloud's benefits. While the hardware is now nearly limitless and is paid for on an ad hoc basis, the company's responsibilities are still high. At this level, anything above the hypervisor is required to be handled by your IT staff. Patching of servers, launching and terminating instances based on demand, high availability needs, and more are still 100 percent your problem.


Server management in your data center vs. in the cloud

Here is a representation of a basic server with your responsibilities highlighted for administering it in your data center versus in the cloud:


Data applications operating system hardware


Data applications operating system hardware

Servers launched in the cloud remove your direct responsibility for hardware failure. If a hard drive dies or memory goes bad, replacing the hardware is the cloud provider's problem, so this is a step in the right direction. Additionally, most cloud storage includes redundancies, so your data remains protected during these failures.
 A great cloud architect launches services in the cloud.


Data applications operating system hardware


Data applications operating system hardware

A service can offer the same capabilities as a server in the cloud, but your administrative duties drop even further.
To explain the difference more clearly, take the example of a basic file storage server. A server of this type that has been migrated to the cloud can be duplicated by launching a virtual machine with the exact same specifications as what you used on-prem. You have removed the need to manage hardware, but replication, high availability, patching the operating system, managing installed applications, and the data itself all remain under your umbrella of administration.
Using a cloud storage service (such as AWS' Simple Storage Service) greatly simplifies things. You simply upload the data. Redundancy, scaling and operating systems are a thing of the past from your perspective. On top of all that, you pay dramatically less. Making full use of the cloud is a win on all sides--you work less and lower your costs.


You Have an Eagerness to Learn

 A good architect is interested in what the cloud has to offer
The ability to use these new services does not come without work on your part. The pace at which new offerings are made available is staggering and shows no indication of slowing down. Take a look at the services offered by the two largest providers, Amazon and Microsoft.
Each offers plenty of services. Agility and change are constants in cloud technologies, so keeping abreast of new offerings is key. Reading "What's new" posts can only cover the basics, and to be a great cloud architects, you will need to dig deeper in order to understand how a service can effect change without adversely affecting your current infrastructure.
A great cloud architect uses new knowledge to evolve
Training is critical here. The biggest (and often unrecognized) benefit to training is the width of knowledge gained. It also helps you avoid costly and possibly job-jeopardizing mistakes. I've taught classes where the depth of student knowledge in a few particular areas was impressive, but I've never taught a class where a single student had experience with all of the services or strategies mentioned during the training. If you are only learning the things needed to do your job in the moment, you won't be prepared to move to newer and better services in the future. Furthermore, you're hampering your ability to innovate with the cloud.
Earning certifications follows a similar logic. There is never a replacement for real, on the job experience, but the testing process forces you to solidify at least a basic understanding of many topics. It's that width of knowledge that is so essential to the cloud-specific ideal of constantly moving forward. Being forced to learn about services outside of your current requirements has regularly led to "a ha" moments where you realize just how well a specific service fits a new requirement.


Here are some courses that provide training and certification prep:


Beginner certs:



Certs for people new to the cloud but have experience with IT:



You are a Little Bit Paranoid

 Good architects fix existing flaws
Architects need to focus on security, so a feeling that everyone is out to get you is not a bad thing. Phishing attempts, social engineering and distributed denial of service (DDoS) are a short sampling of a long list of current threats to your network's security.
Good designs follow what is known as "defense in depth." Each part of your infrastructure should be defended individually so that you never rely on a single bulwark for protection. Firewalls, security groups, monitoring and analysis, threat detection via services and third-party tools, auditing, and encryption are all tools that can and should be deployed to secure your systems.
Great architects know that bad things still happen
Great designs take preparedness a step further by planning a response for when things go wrong. No architect can guarantee a perfectly secure setup, so disaster recovery plans, documentation, and escalation timelines are necessary (though hopefully unused) requirements.
One of the biggest flaws that is regularly seen in cloud architects is putting too much reliance for security on your cloud provider. Many administrators, after hearing how simple the cloud is to use, assume that security is one of the many things that no longer fall under their responsibility. This is simply dangerous thinking as well as being utterly false. To be a great cloud architect, you need to be well aware of your share of the burden under the cloud's model of shared responsibility.


You Focus on More Than Just IT

The final aspect that differentiates good and great cloud architects is the ability to see outside of the server room. Too many good architects worry about providing sound and secure technologies but ignore the need to meet business requirements or make money. This may scare some of you, but for this to work, you will need to leave the comfort and security of your cubicle or server room. A true understanding of your business needs requires interaction with every department that uses your systems; in other words, everyone. Sales can tell you what drives their customers crazy. Marketing can tell you what people find interesting and what falls flat. Executives can tell you the direction they want the business to go. On the flip side of this, you can tell each of them what is feasible and what is not. Communication between departments may take you out of your comfort zone, but it will deepen your understanding of a company's needs.
The ability to modify an entire architecture due to a change in business model used to be a laughable idea. Great architects take advantage of the short-term nature of cloud economics to replace and reconfigure just about any portion of their architecture to meet new goals. The ability to experiment with new designs and services with little to no long-term cost should not be underestimated.
Implementations of cloud services may not seem obviously useful from a technological point of view, but those and many other tools can rapidly pay dividends for other divisions of your company. Tools like Amazon Macie are a perfect example. The ability of the cloud to store literally billions of files sounds amazing until you are the person tasked with looking for non-compliant data. Sensitive information such as credit card numbers, passwords, and personally identifiable information can easily fall through the cracks and unwittingly be placed in within cloud storage. Compliance demands this to be verified, but a team of humans looking through each file would never catch up to the workload. Macie automates this task and performs this action in real-time as new files are added.
With cloud offerings that can spin up in minutes to offer those types of components, they are often easily integrated into existing designs and can have benefits that people outside of your department may not even realize are possible. Don't focus solely on your own department to the detriment of others. A great architect meets the needs of the company instead of just the needs of their single department.
A cloud architect's job can be exciting and rewarding, but it does place demands upon you if you want to excel. Embracing those demands as a path to elevating your skills and knowledge will improve your organization's performance and security posture. Striving for great instead of good might sound cliché, but, for career-minded individuals, it is the right path to take.
What do you think makes a great cloud architect?
Let us know on Twitter at Global Knowledge on Cloud Computing.
Additional Cloud Architect resources:

Recommended classes to develop these skills

Foundation Level Classes

These introductory classes are for those who are new to the cloud and want to get a quick start

Cloud Architecture

These classes teach students to launch servers, execute auto-scaling, and implement appropriate storage (all the necessary components for scalable, highly available, and agile infrastructures)

Pro Level Courses

These courses dive deeper into the hybrid architectures, monitoring, and security in more complex designs

Jeff Peters

Jeff Peters is a systems engineer, cloud architect, and technical trainer with over 20 years of IT experience and a current focus on Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure. He holds several MCSEs from Microsoft along with Professional and Specialty certifications from Amazon. Jeff resides in Metuchen, NJ with his wife and two sons, who all roll their eyes when he gets overly excited about technology.