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Technology directions

January is usually the time when columnists put on their pointy wizard hats and take a look at the direction of technology. Technology is certainly moving forward, but will it move very far? The downturn in the economy and in IT budgets in 2002 severely constrained IT groups from rolling out new technology.

After two years of budget cuts, most surveys indicate that budgets will stay flat in 2003. They also reveal that IT departments will typically not upgrade equipment. IT still has the same marching orders: keep costs down and deliver true value in what you do.

According to Gartner Group's Betsy Burton, ''By 2004, half of the vendors that were in business in 2000 will not be anymore.'' This is not good news for vendors, and it certainly makes technology bets by IT departments a bit riskier. What happens if your vendor goes out of business? We are already seeing consolidation in the industry. For example, in 2002, TogetherSoft bought the assets of WebGain. A little later, Borland bought TogetherSoft and Starbase. A Gartner survey does expect growth in the software industry; unfortunately, they don't see this happening until 2008. The only faint spark of light is in a Morgan Stanley survey in which 31% of CIOs said spending would increase in 2003. And this economic environment also has repercussions for IT staff. In 2002, the IT field shed 500,000 jobs. While some companies are hiring, most predict no staffing changes for 2003.

So how does an IT department meet its goals and still help its company to move forward? Innovation helps. What if you had a new way to help your company get closer to its customers and provide better service? What if you could make it easier for your firm to adjust to changing business needs? Innovation through technology can provide an advantage to business. The trick is to understand where technology is going, and to select those pieces of technology that will help your company innovate to its advantage.

On the development front, Web services continue to move forward, despite questions surrounding patents and SOAP. Standards for security, transactions and process flow continue to progress. For example, the Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML) has been ratified as an OASIS standard. WS-Security continues to move toward becoming a complementary security standard. More and more applications are adding Web services enablement to their capabilities. Tools for managing Web services are also appearing. This is important as Web services become more widely deployed in the enterprise. Although there have been skeptics, ebXML continues to gain traction. In the coming year, interest will grow in Web services collaboration, workflow and transaction management. Oracle has asked the W3C to select a standard, and there are several to choose from. BPML has finally reached a 1.0 state. Microsoft and IBM's Business Process Execution Language for Web Services (BPEL4WS) is an attempt to meld the best each company has for workflow. Sun's Web Services Choreography Interface (WSCI) provides a third alternative. Collaboration and transaction standards are also important for developing B2B Web services.

These are not the only advances in technology we can expect. Recently, PricewaterhouseCoopers released Technology Forecast 2002-2004, Volume 2: Emerging Patterns of Internet Computing. In its forecast, the firm noted several interesting trends. Servers are becoming a commodity, and the keys are scalability, flexibility, reliability and manageability. Most servers are adequate in these areas and you can purchase the appropriate scale of server to fit your needs. This applies to operating systems as well. I find it interesting to see how far Linux has come in the last few years. Tools such as Red Hat's Advanced Server clustering and load balancing capabilities have made Linux a better fit in the enterprise.

Major hardware vendors have come out with strong support for Linux. Another advancement is the number of vendors who have ported their software to Linux. All this bodes well for the further adoption of Linux in the enterprise -- at least on the server side.

There also seems to be a growing interest in Linux for deploying cost-effective solutions in the Third World. I've participated in some discussions about doing this type of development. It's interesting to note that we're talking about this approach for business applications, not just Web publishing. It appears that Linux and the open-source approach may have significant advantages in delivering quality software in an environment that is more fiscally constrained than what we find in the U.S. Linux has long been a capable environment for Web delivery. Fortunately, Linux has matured to the point where it can provide a solid, enterprise-ready platform. We see this with the availability of more Linux-enabled business applications. If this trend continues, Linux could become a significant platform in much of the developing world.

We've all heard of voice over IP, but IP is becoming a dominant connection protocol beyond its usual domain. According to Michael Katz, director at PricewaterhouseCoopers' Technology Centre, this could lead to telecom companies losing their monopoly on services. Anyone with an Internet connection could become a service provider. This seems closely related to another technology trend forecast by PricewaterhouseCoopers -- pervasive computing. What happens when computing is not just on our desktops, but in our clothes, door handles, curtains and windows?

In its forecast, PricewaterhouseCoopers quotes Mark Weiser's 1991 Scientific American article in which he said, ''The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.'' Pervasive computing has the opportunity to fundamentally change how we work and interact. This technology may be the furthest from realization, but progress is being made in key technologies such as wireless networking, microprocessors, storage and displays. Another important part of the puzzle is the software glue for all this. You could consider Sun's Jini as a contender for the software glue of pervasive computing. The ability to dynamically federate devices is a key capability.

Wireless networking: PricewaterhouseCoopers' Katz describes 802.11 as a truly disruptive technology. While 802.11 made it easier for an enterprise to connect devices, it can now be found in airports, hotels and convention centers. The last conference I attended sold wireless cards for those wanting to connect their laptops to the local wireless network. Encryption and security are important issues to consider as the technology finds its way into the home and public spaces.

Katz also sees computing as a utility growing as a concept. I'm sure IBM likes hearing this, considering their announced support for this direction. Katz sees companies gaining benefits just as they have by outsourcing their telecommunications. While the concept of metered usage is not new, I think its application will require modification to IT budgeting and planning processes. This may do more to delay adoption than the ability to deliver utility-based computing. HP and Sun also have an interest in this area.

One final area that will see growth is grid computing. The purpose behind grid computing is scalable and reliable distributed global computation. Grids as they are created today are computational platforms for complex calculations. Examples include the European Data Grid and the Grid Physics Network. While today's grids are useful to the scientific community, they may provide solutions to distributed computing issues in the enterprise.

So what's an IT department to do with advancing technology in today's economic environment? Standards can help as a buffer against risk. Even if your vendor goes away, if they've conformed to recognized standards, there is a possibility you may be able to migrate to another vendor's product. The other imperative is innovation. Innovation can help you use available technology to give your firm a competitive edge and help put these economic doldrums behind us.

About the Author

John D. Williams is a contributor to Application Development Trends. He is president of Blue Mountain Commerce, a Cary, N.C.-based consulting firm specializing in enterprise, domain and application architectures. He can be reached via e-mail at jwilliams@bluemountaincommerce.com.

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