Fifty percent of IT jobs will disappear in the next 20 years thanks to new data centre technology. That is the rather dramatic conclusion by Gartner this week.

Analyst Donna Scott said IT workers face a situation similar to that in the manufacturing field, which has lost jobs over the past several decades as automation has improved. Standardisation of IT infrastructure, applications and processes will all lead to productivity improvements and a major shift in skill needs, she said.

"There will be more room to automate and that means there will be reduced labour cost," she explained. "This is a long-term change."

Gartner called this change "real-time infrastructure", which involves service-oriented architectures, the elimination of communications barriers and dynamic alignment of IT with business priorities. Technologies enabling the shift have less need for human intervention because they are more intelligent and can automatically provision services and self-heal.

IT operations, which encompasses sysadmin, incident response and change management, today account for about 55 percent of an IT department's labour cost, said Scott. But as companies improve automation, IT operations become "more like a factory". Demand will grow for employees who have IT architecture skills as well as those with business and customer-liaison knowledge. Project management, for instance, will rise in terms of the percentage of labour costs.

Reaction to Gartner's vision of a highly automated data center has been varied. "Like most of the Gartner stuff, it's sort of an Utopian state - we're certainly not there yet," said Stevan Lewis, director of enterprise planning for BMO Financial Group, a 34,000-employee financial services company.

Lewis said he believes that some operational jobs will shift to other IT areas but that it will be about 25 percent and will affect mostly low-end work.

The forecast prompted Ken Wagner, manager of the data center at Kawasaki, to talk about the changes he has seen in IT over the 35 years he has been in the business - especially those brought by the Web. "There's been so much change in the last 10 years, it's amazing," he said. Gartner may be right about the future of operational jobs, he said, "but I don't know if anyone knows the real direction."

But Walter Wilson, deputy CIO of Ventura, is training his IT staff to handle different, more sophisticated jobs in their data centre, which supports more than 8,000 users, particularly as they begin virtualising IT systems. "It's a training issue more than anything else," said Wilson, "because all these people are very capable."