5 Disruptive Technologies To Watch In 2008

InformationWeek - January 3, 2008
David Strom

From informationweek.com

A new year always brings changes and new challenges for IT managers, and 2008 will be no exception. While there are dozens of emerging technologies that have the potential to disrupt current standards, five that have significant opportunity to lead to major implications for enterprises in the coming year are: virtualization, the role of Apple and managing cross-platform shops, managed data centers, video over IP networks, and presence-aware applications.

What all five have in common is the ability to change the course of your IT plans, rework your network infrastructure, manage your desktops, and alter the way you build and deploy your applications.

Virtualization Now

A lot has happened on the virtualization front in the past 12 months, and this technology will continue to make headlines in 2008. While the overall concept isn't new, it is expanding into just about every nook and cranny of the data center, and is proving to be a very useful tool for a wider array of situations.

Dan Kusnetzky, principal analyst of the Kusnetzky Group, researches multiple kinds of virtualization technologies and tracks dozens of specialized vendors that offer virtual desktops running virtual applications from virtual storage across virtual networks, and even using virtual security. He sees more activity in all of these areas, with new products such as VMware's Fusion that allow virtual machines to run on Mac OS, as well as virtualization built into some of the newer Linux distributions and processing chipsets from Intel and AMD. "[Putting] this much of the overhead of running a virtual machine into hardware makes everything run ever so much faster," said Kusnetzky.

The year past saw companies offering virtual applications, or the ability to load new applications across a network without having to first install them on a user's hard disk. Products in this space from companies such as Thinstall, Appstream, Altiris, and Microsoft are actively improving and adding features.

They have several things going for them: First, the applications are always patched and current so upgrades are trivial; this is particularly appealing for those applications that can expose an enterprise to security issues, such as Web browsers and other Internet connectors. Second, users can work from any Internet-connected computer, such as those at an airport or copy shop. Finally, as an IT shop rolls out new internally developed applications, they can be quickly deployed with centralized access controls only to those users who need to run them.

Server-based virtualization is also improving, with native versions of Xensource, purchased in 2007 by Citrix, and VMware hypervisors (the control program that runs the virtual machines) available for 64-bit processors.

And there is a growing collection of pre-built "images" from both Microsoft (which calls them virtual hard disks) and VMware (which uses the term virtual appliances) that can make setting up a new server or desktop OS easier than ever before.

Kusnetzky talks about new developments in virtualization that will allow a user to start a virtual machine in one location, suspend its operations, and then continue working from a different computer, exactly where things left off -- similar to how a laptop can wake up from sleep mode. "This means you can have a virtual desktop that is constantly running and accessible from anywhere in the world and yet be completely secure," he said.

Apple And Cross-Platform Shops

Apple's stock price is in the stratosphere, and with good reason. After making gadget freaks across the nation wait up all night last summer to be the first to buy an iPhone, there are more subtle changes ahead in 2008. For the first time in many years, picking the right Web browser is now a three-way race among Apple's Safari, Mozilla's Firefox, and Microsoft's Internet Explorer.

Having three Web browsers to support can be cumbersome for many corporations that rely on Web-based Intranets and internal applications. "It is hard to write Intranet applications that run well on both Safari and IE, so we tend to tell our users to use Firefox for the Intranet, and use whatever other browser for your external needs," said Dan O'Donnell, collaboration administrator at Rand Corporation. As an example, Microsoft's Sharepoint doesn't work well on any of the Mac browsers, something that O'Donnell wishes were otherwise.

Microsoft's Windows Vista, released early in 2007, has largely been a non-event in many corporations. Many have held off on any wholesale migration to the new operating system, instead sticking with XP or even moving to the Mac OS. While Vista made good on its promises to rewrite the kernel and deliver a new security model, it has suffered from a lack of compatible applications and its own collection of security issues. "The relative lack of Windows security isn't something that Apple caused, but clearly they are benefiting from it," said O'Donnell.

Rand is a true cross-platform shop, with Mac OS desktops accounting for 25% of its inventory, Windows for 73%, and Unix/Linux for 2%. "While we always had a mix of desktop OSs, we now see people that have never been on Macs asking more about it," O'Donnell said. "This is partly due to people being fed up with all of the possible Windows intrusions. I hear a lot of veteran Windows users complain about Vista."

Video Over IP Networks

The combination of YouTube, improved Web-based and live videoconferencing, and the ease and lower cost of creating video content means that more video will be running across corporate networks. Planning for the appropriate infrastructure will be critical, especially in the coming year as more video-aware applications are developed.

"We usually see the classic IT situation where 'no' is the operative word when it comes to adding video on corporate networks because most IT people are overworked and worried about the data networking impact," said Rick Mavrogeanes, a founder of Vbrick Systems, a video networking appliance vendor. "In many cases we have seen where networking IT support doesn't want to deal with video applications, nor do they fancy themselves as plumbers."

IT's reluctance isn't only a matter of how much raw bandwidth is needed, but also a need for better understanding some of the other networking issues. "Video traffic is more consistent and doesn't require a lot of bandwidth, but you do need to understand latency issues and quality of service (QoS)," said Mavrogeanes. "We have seen VoIP paving the way for supporting video, because in many cases VoIP shakes out the QoS and latency issues across an enterprise network."

To really understand video applications, take a look at TV production company Bunin-Murray, creator of numerous reality TV shows such as The Simple Life and The Real World. The company deploys multiple solutions for its video productions, according to Mark Raudonis, VP of post-production and defacto IT manager. They make low-resolution copies of their videos for off-line editing and "can get away without having gigabit Ethernet to the desktop," he said.

But for the editing of the actual broadcast video, "even gigabit Ethernet isn't enough bandwidth. For these situations, we bring fibre to the desktop and put the videos on a separate storage area network." Mavrogeanes agreed with this strategy, saying "it is important to ensure that the backbone network adequately supports multicast and that any edge equipment exhibits excellent network citizenship."

Outsourced Data Centers

Gone is the day where an enterprise actually needed to house its own servers. In 2008, there will be increasing numbers of managed service providers (MSPs) who will gladly do it for you, co-locating servers at third-party sites, and who will do it cheaper and more reliably, too.

"The generic challenge with Internet-related apps is that the amount of expertise to keep the stuff running and secure has gone up," said Rich Bader, CEO of MSP Easystreet Online Services. "Now you have to stay on top of patches and the precision of your configuration is more important because it is going to be tested regularly by the bad guys."

This brings an added degree of complexity to managing the fleet of servers and the accompanying applications. "Server management is probably the number-one entry point," said Charles Weaver, president of the International Associated of Managed Service Providers. "Larger enterprises have IT departments who are overtaxed and underfunded, and they are doing more with MSPs to offload certain segments of IT management, such as e-mail management, server management, VPNs and security, log monitoring, and auditing."

Clearpoint is an MSP that provides for 100% remote management of networks and servers, with more than 25,000 devices under management through its operations center. Clearpoint director Bob Longo said, "I can do it for a fixed monthly cost, and handle all the patch management and outages. I call the vendor and wait on hold for their repair dispatchers. Once a customer signs a contract with me, it is the last time they need to think about their servers. [They] don't have to worry about them going down."

Longo is a big fan of a new Microsoft product line called System Center. It can be used to monitor trouble calls, do desktop support, and push software upgrades out to individual PCs.

"We don't threaten any IT jobs unless they are doing plumbing, in which case they should be out of that business," said Longo. Some of his customers have tested response times in interesting ways. "We had one client that unplugged a server and waited to see how long it took us to come in," he said.

And lest you think that MSPs are the province of smaller shops, take a look at where IBM is focusing its efforts. "There has been a greater acceptance of outsourcing, and we have increased our offerings, especially in the midmarket," said Rick Ruiz, general manager of small and medium business services within IBM's Global Technology Services division. "We have seen interests in companies avoiding fixed costs when their business expands. They don't want to staff-up yet, but still add capabilities. They want to focus on their core business."

Presence-Aware SIP Applications

Our final disruptive application for the coming year isn't just about instant messaging or VoIP, but the glue that holds them together in what cognoscenti call "presence awareness." There is a growing number of applications and vendors delivering products that figure out what the user is doing in any given moment and make it easier to communicate or route work flows.

Here is the deal: when you have a VoIP telephone on your desk, it can also be associated with your computer, so that if you are on the phone, your incoming callers can show up as caller ID messages on your PC screen. Or, if you want to schedule an audio conference, you can use a Web site to quickly set it up. Even better, there are some IM applications that also integrate with the telephone, so that people can see your status automatically over their IM software.

"The idea is to create a combination of applications that can be used by call centers and take business processes and alleviate a lot of human latency and error," said Mark Damphousse, CTO of Trinet Systems. These applications can often bridge the transition from an older telephony PBX to a newer model that supports VoIP, too.

There are two separate protocol paths that application developers have taken to make this magic possible: one called session initiation protocol (SIP), and its extension for IM called SIP for instant messaging and presence leveraging extensions (SIMPLE). Microsoft uses SIP and SIMPLE with their proprietary changes that are not yet standardized. The other protocol is called extensible messaging and presence protocol (XMPP). XMPP has been adopted by Google Talk and by Jabber, among many others. Both protocols are used for call control and are supported by numerous vendors for basic presence awareness and convergence communications tasks.

While e-mail won't become obsolete -- although IM and collaborative tools vendor Jive Software's CTO Matt Tucker said "around here, e-mail is the new snail mail" -- adding presence awareness will change the way that your company will communicate in 2008.