As the end of the year approaches, pundits put on their thinking caps, fire up the old crystal balls, and try to predict what technologies are worthy of attention over the next 12 months. And around every year this time we have a look at those musings and we try to identify the trends that will put dollars in resellers’ pockets and smiles on their faces.Some of these technologies have had gestations longer than the entire lifetime of many other tech trends, and, like the cicada that burrows its way to the surface after 17 years underground as a nymph, some are finally emerging to make their mark on the world.
One such technology is unified communications, the merger of e-mail, voice mail, fax and possibly other media (SMS, video and instant messaging, for example) into a single mailbox. It has been around in some form for over a decade, but analysts predict it is finally going to gain some serious traction.
Part of the reason that its time has come can be laid at the feet of the Y2K scramble. Telephone systems installed to deal with Y2K issues are reaching end-of-life, prompting companies to look for replacements. Gartner says that 20 per cent of the PBX install base has already migrated to Voice over IP (VoIP), and over 80 per cent of the remainder is conducting VoIP trials. Gartner expects most companies to make the switch over the next three years.
A number of vendors, including well-known names such as Cisco and Avaya already offer products, but Microsoft’s recent entry into the unified messaging marketplace can’t be ignored – it’s a sign that the technology is poised to hit the mainstream.
Microsoft claims that its software-based products can reduce the cost of a VoIP communication system by half, making the technology significantly more accessible to a broad range of customers. It doesn’t hurt that the whole system is built on familiar tools – Microsoft Office System 2007 applications (Outlook, Communicator, and Live Meeting) for the user, and Exchange Server 2007 and Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 at the back end – offering Microsoft partners a comparatively short learning curve before they can conduct implementations and reap profits.
It’s no surprise that virtualization has hit the hot list this year. Although it, too, has been lurking on the periphery for decades, and has moved from leading edge to mainstream over the past year, Gartner calls “virtualization 2.0” one of the top 10 strategic technologies for 2008.
Virtualization we know; Gartner’s “2.0” is the addition of service-level, policy-based management and automation, performing tasks such as on-the-fly distribution of work, and aggregation to create a giant SMP “system.” This, says Gartner, can dramatically improve resource efficiency, and allow services to be managed holistically.
Data centres making a comeback
It can also save companies a lot of money, adds Carmi Levy, senior vice-president, Strategic Consulting, AR Communications Inc. “IT managers increasingly realize that unconsolidated servers represent a significant ongoing cost to the organization,” he noted, “and virtualization is the toolset they’ll use to harvest the low-hanging fruit.”
However, Symantec’s recent State of the Data Center Report indicated that, while Canadian companies have a much higher interest in virtualization than the rest of the world, IT managers express concern about the complexity, the difficulty in troubleshooting, and the shortage of skilled staff with knowledge of these newer technologies. That makes the harvest a lot more difficult.
There’s a silver lining here for VARs – IT managers’ solutions to the issues included hiring fast learners, deployment of intelligent management tools, and outsourcing some of the tasks. And two of those three solutions can put dollars in a VAR’s pockets.
It’s not a single technology, but with today’s skyrocketing energy costs and increasing regard for the environment, green tech is top-of-mind for many IT managers. Gartner says that the IT industry is responsible for a full two per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions – the same amount as the airline industry. And almost a quarter of those emissions are generated by data centres, while 40 per cent come from PCs and monitors. Thus, green tech has a place in its top 10 strategic technologies for 2008, and Gartner predicts that, thanks to high-density servers with high power and cooling requirements, energy management will become a significant issue in procuring new hardware and running data centers.
How big an issue? Energy consumption by servers in data centers globally, according to a report by Jonathan G. Koomey, Ph.D., staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and consulting professor at Stanford University, amounted to a whopping US$7.2-billion in 2005 (US $2.7-billion in the US alone) – the output of fourteen 1000-megawatt power plants. This was double the consumption in 2000. To come by his figures, Koomey combined IDC’s server data with reported power consumption of popular models, and added estimates to account for cooling and other infrastructure equipment supporting them. He excluded storage and network equipment, since there was no reliable data from which to derive estimates. But even without those additional loads, the power consumption curve is heading upwards at a precipitous rate, prompting IT managers to look for solutions.
However, as Kermit the Frog once sang, it’s not easy being green, and that creates a lot of opportunities for resellers and VARs who want to make some cash from the green movement. Noted Levy, “To take full advantage of green technology, companies will need to do more than simply buy a few Energy Star-rated laptops. Data center architecture needs to be fundamentally planned and implemented, and infrastructure management strategies need to be updated as well. Going fully green demands a complete rethink of how IT operates, which opens the door to smart resellers that package turnkey offerings that meet this growing need.”
He went on, “Over the next five years, virtually every customer with IT assets – basically every business on the planet – will demand eco-friendly technologies. While altruism is a nice ideal, they’ll be driven by the potential savings from going green. Companies that fail to prioritize more efficient infrastructure will be at a competitive disadvantage. In the same vein, resellers that fail to meet market demand for eco-friendly tech will find themselves losing ground.”
Mobility-enabling technologies are growing concerns too, on several fronts. And since one of the biggest challenges with mobile devices is battery life (or lack thereof), successful devices tend to be eco-friendly.
If one component of these units is a power-guzzler, it’s the display, but new technology will soon deal with both the power consumption and the bulk of even a small LED. Known as OLED (organic light-emitting diode) screens, they can be slim enough to be rolled like a sheet of paper, and since they don’t need backlights, they sip power. Sony has announced that it will be shipping an 11 inch OLED TV late this year – but, alas, only in Japan for now. If the technology performs as hoped, look for OLED screens on mobile devices soon.
Mobile device owners, because they’re on the go, also tend to be adverse to wires. Forty per cent of respondents in an international survey conducted earlier this year said they had a wireless network at home (and more than half of the remainder said they were considering installing one), and about half of them said they use the network for printing.
Although for the moment, we’re still stuck with the power cord, many of Lexmark’s current inkjet printers allow us to do away with that pesky USB cable – they use Wi-Fi to connect to their client systems. A few models also allow Bluetooth connections, permitting downloads directly from Bluetooth-enabled cameras or cellular phones.
Wired up for wireless
Lexmark, of course, isn’t the only vendor to offer some sort of wireless connectivity – many others now provide Bluetooth as an option on some models, and HP also has some Wi-Fi enabled units – but it has the most comprehensive selection of wireless models at the moment.
All this leads to interesting opportunities for resellers. Said Levy: “As the percentage of companies standardizing on some flavour of mobility continues to grow, the market is reaching its tipping point, thus compelling late adopters to solidify their implementation plans – or risk being left behind for good. Resellers who understand the business benefits of mobility, and who structure themselves to deliver packaged services that support seamless addition of mobile capability into existing IT services, will lead the pack as businesses of all sizes increasingly look for help in helping more of their staff do more when they’re away from the office.”
The crystal ball is getting cloudy now, but one more technology is visible through the mist – the secure Web gateway. Gartner recently produced its first Magic Quadrant report on the category, whose products filter unwanted software or malware from user-initiated Web/Internet traffic and enforce corporate and regulatory policy compliance. In other words, it protects users from themselves by heading off the consequences of ill-advised clicking on suspect links or installing enticing-looking widgets that quietly install botnet software on the side.
California-based Mi5 Networks was recognized as a visionary in the category for its low-latency bi-directional scanning (thanks, said Mi5 CEO and founder Doug Camplejohn, to the fact that many of his engineers came from carrier backgrounds, and “are used to doing fancy things with bits, at high speeds.”) that even detects botnet activity. “The overarching theme we see,” said Camplejohn, “is that there are a lot of things going on in networks that administrators don’t know about.”
For resellers, those things, like the other shadows we see in the crystal ball, can lead to revenue.