The best hardware and software of the year

The most distinctive shift we saw during 2010 were the conflicting pulls on computing platforms, drawing them to the far ends of the spectrum: more applications and services being delivered from virtual servers and large clouds, while on the other end, ever-smaller client endpoints taking a larger role in business and in the daily lives of customers.

Systems near the midpoint — workstations, desktops, and laptops — are becoming page two news, whereas they used to represent the key cradles of innovation.

Businesses are turning to SaaS for business apps, productivity suites, and collaboration, and to large clouds for development, testing, and analyzing “big data.” How far will this trend go? Will our desktop workspaces end up being hosted on virtual servers, so we can access them from thin clients and tablets? Or will we dump the traditional desktop for cloud applications and the likes of Google Chrome OS? The coming year should begin to answer these questions, as the volatile mix of virtualization, cloud computing, and powerful, lightweight client devices challenge the dominant desktop paradigm.

iPads and Androids

Although the form factor of client endpoints continues to shrink, this has not come at the cost of diminished computing power. We’re starting to see the laptop, itself a lighter, mobile response to the PC, under attack as too bulky. This attack is coming from the smartphone, the iPad, and of course the crop of iPad competitors announced earlier this month at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.

So far, however, competing tablets have served only to underscore the excellence of the iPad, which has emerged as a popular and versatile business tool, as well as a consumer favorite. More personal than any PC, the iPad is unmatched in its potential to be at once useful and fun.

To what extent smartphones will merge with small-form-factor tablets is still unclear, but the trend seems inevitable. We expect that Google Android — our pick for best mobile platform — will be the operating system that leads the way in determining this, in good part because it is open source and developers are made to feel welcome driving innovation. Apple’s command-and-control approach to development and application distribution may start to carry real costs as this evolution occurs.

Developers play a prominent role in the success or failure of any new technology. For this reason, we continue to examine many developer tools, with a special interest in IDEs, the programmer’s principal tool. Due to the heavily graphics and multimedia orientation of client endpoints and Web interfaces, development is now concentrated in IDEs rather than editors. The need for the integrated design and test tools is simply too great for editors to be the key tool they once were.

We give several awards to IDEs this year, including one to Microsoft Visual Studio 2010. Microsoft, having been founded by programmers, has always understood that wooing developers is an important way to foster technology adoption. Its MSDN program and extensive developer tool suites demonstrate this commitment. See the accompanying slideshow for our top picks among Java, Python, and PHP tools.

The explosion of data has given rise to tools of truly massive scale that were essentially unthinkable a few years ago. Hadoop and its constituent parts, for example, happily handle hundreds of gigabytes of data as if this were a mundane computing operation. The implementation of these tools on a huge scale is now cheaply accessible via Amazon EC2 and its related services and through Google App Engine.

At the same time, the need for databases to handle large volumes of nontabular and nontransactional data has spurred the so-called NoSQL movement. It’s not clear to what extent this movement has legs, despite being driven by multiple, popular open source projects. The “no SQL” aspect is being undermined by efforts to create SQL front ends for these products. As they move more closely to existing models for IT, they edge toward adoption by mainstream RDBMS vendors, who have shown themselves adept at folding new technologies into core products. We recognized some of these large data projects in our Bossie 2010 awards, which are given out yearly to the best open source projects.Big data would not be possible without big infrastructure to support it — and big infrastructure increasingly means the cloud. Virtualized storage and virtualized computing are proving themselves to be effective and highly flexible alternatives to the bricks and mortar of on-premises data centers. This view is a step forward from even a year ago, when clouds were seen primarily as a match for developer tasks, such as testing and debugging — still the lead use case for clouds among many enterprises.Now the cloud is emerging as a good platform for running large-scale analysis without requiring a commensurate investment in hardware. The cloud’s attractive features (low op-ex rather than cap-ex, transparent backup and redundant systems, instant capacity expansion, and ease-of-use) will no doubt continue to draw new adherents.Virtualization and multicoreVirtualization — the key enabler of the cloud — can place considerable stress on processors, which is one of the reasons that CPUs today contain dedicated circuitry to reduce the software overhead of virtualization operations. In addition, the profusion of cores on new CPUs allows virtualization platforms to host many virtual machines without compromising performance.This year’s award-winning CPUs — the 12-core AMD Opteron Magny-Cours and the 8-core Intel Xeon Nehalem-EX — both provide superior performance when many tasks are running in parallel. AMD’s Magny-Cours offers the best price/performance for highly concurrent workloads, while Intel’s Nehalem-EX targets high-capacity SMP servers with RAS (Reliability, Availability, Serviceability) features previously found only in mainframes, RISC/Unix servers, and Itanium.We fully expect the march toward more cores to continue. Many-core processors, combined with denser RAM configurations, all hooked up to high-capacity NICs (multiple 10Gb Ethernet adapters) are the basis of future in-house, “private” clouds.

Whether such platforms will ever replace traditional desktops — via virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) — is still unclear. Even ignoring issues of user acceptance, deploying VDI on a large scale can be both costly and complex. Starter solutions such as Kaviza VDI-in-a-box — another of our award winners — put desktop virtualization within anyone’s reach. 

Between the iPad and the cloud lies the traditional Windows desktop and its supporting infrastructure of multiuser hosts, such as CMS and collaboration platforms, that enable users to share files, participate in workflows, and have immediate access to business data. Here, Microsoft’s stellar SharePoint 2010 and Exchange 2010 offer the richest set of services by which users can get the benefits of collaboration and communication with the least amount of difficulty.

Microsoft’s wins in these server software categories (plus two more awards for Visual Studio 2010 and Silverlight 4) demonstrate that the company is far from the legacy, Windows-and-Office-only vendor it is often portrayed as. Microsoft did not luck into its recent successes, but had the insight to identify needs and provide intelligent solutions. Equally remarkable is the company’s success with younger consumers via the Xbox 360 and the stunning Kinect add-on. There is no other company that is both a market leader in consumer hardware and a provider of prize-winning enterprise software — not Apple, nor HP, nor Google. Odd then, that Microsoft can’t seem to find its footing in mobile or the cloud. 

Among vendors, Microsoft led the field with four awards this year. Surprisingly under-represented is HP, although the company bested Dell and IBM</a. in our server blades shoot-out — and thereby nabbed our award for best blades system. By comparison, Dell continued to surprise us all year long, winning a number of product roundups and coming close in others. It receives two of our Technology of the Year awards and could easily have won a few more. Dell has been innovating at a fast pace and continues to lead all comers in price/performance in just about every category.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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