It can be hard to separate the high tech hype from reality, especially when the hype machine at times is so loud.

What we have done here is turned down the din to give you an idea of what technologies are overhyped and what you should really pay attention to.

Cloud computing

Hype Status: Climbing

There's no doubt cloud computing is here to stay. It's well established and provides quantifiable financial benefits so compelling that businesses are leaping into using the technology. Private clouds require less hardware than conventional client/server architectures and, through their use of virtual machines, make even more efficient use of the physical servers.

These benefits are enhanced further with varying types of public cloud services such as Amazon's EC2 and Google Apps that remove the capital investment companies make in order to set up cloud services. With compute charges of 40 cents an hour, no capital costs, quick setup times and quick teardown times, these services provide attractive test and development environments.

The downside of cloud services in broad terms is that they are built and maintained by third parties, and there are multiple ways they could be insecure. Data could be lost through failures within the cloud. Data be could compromised through attacks from outside. Providers could be legally forced to turn over business data that would untouchable be if held in private networks. The list goes on and on.

So the reason to watch cloud computing over the next year is not to determine whether it's viable technology but how the industry will address its shortcomings, which it will. In the meantime businesses that use public or private clouds need to evaluate risk and determine whether it is worth it. Often, this means keeping certain classes of data out of clouds and letting clouds handle less sensitive data that, if compromised, won't have devastating effects on corporate goals.

Network neutrality

Hype status: Under hyped

This isn't a technology per se, but it is a regulatory issue that could have a big impact on the price businesses pay for Internet services, and that will come to a head sometime in the first half of 2010.

The goal of Federal Communications Commission hearings on regulations is to preserve an open Internet that is ruled by principles that allow sending and receiving all lawful content, use of all lawful applications and services, use of all lawful devices that don't harm the network, access to all network, application, service and content providers and that ensure there is no discrimination against particular lawful content, applications, services and devices. It also calls for ISPs to reveal network management practices that are necessary but that might limit the other principles.

ISPs protest that net neutrality would limit their ability to charge more for premium services that provide them with the financial incentive to upgrade their networks to handle increasing demands for capacity. The result of net neutrality rules would either boost the price everyone pays for Internet access or it would do away with flat fees for Internet service. Instead, users would be charged per byte of data they send and receive.

Some businesses that rely on customers downloading their products over the Internet, like HD video downloads, could take a hit if their customers have to pay per byte.

Whatever the FCC decides, it will warrant keeping an eye on how ISPs interpret the rules and alter their service offerings and pricing in response.


Hype status: Overhyped and growing

High definition video and audio conferencing in environments that create the illusion that participants are sitting in the same room across the table from each other is the impressive product of telepresence. After sitting on a telepresence conference for a few minutes, the sense of looking at remote participants on high resolution video screens fades and it seems possible to look them in the eye and share a moment.

The clearest return on investment telepresence might offer is that these conferences can save travel costs. Rather than fly halfway around the world for a meeting, people can go to the nearest telepresence room, saving on airfare as well as lost productivity that results from time spent on the road and in the air.

The two biggest stumbling blocks to the technology are price, which can be upward of $200,000 per room, and interoperability. If the equipment doesn't work with equipment made by other vendors or with older videoconferencing gear, it's a hindrance to adoption. Vendors are trying to address both problems.

Over the past year, Cisco, LifeSize, Tandberg and other vendors have come out with lower priced telepresence gear or high definition videoconferencing products that fit in well with telepresence conferences. This less expensive equipment can be used in lieu of more expensive products or as a way to extend these capabilities to smaller sites that don't warrant a full rollout.

People have been promising for more than a decade that videoconferencing is about to hit the big time, but it hasn't happened so far. In the case of telepresence, that might actually be about to happen. Through sustained marketing, product development and nurturing of reference customers, Cisco has done a lot by itself to raise awareness about the technology. With a pending $3 billion acquisition of rival Tandberg, it seems that Cisco is going to continue its drive for broader adoption.

That will mean attractive pricing and better interoperability, both of which are starting to materialise, so the overall prospects for telepresence seem promising.

Social networking for business

Hype status: growing

It's become acceptable to Tweet at work, the idea being to connect outside one's own company with others in the same field to share industry news and insights. The hope is such discussions will spark innovation and perhaps elevate individuals to the level of thought leadership. That notoriety will be good for individuals and the businesses they work for.

Maybe. But it could be argued that Twitter is just a waste of time that could be better spend, well, working.

It's not just Twitter. It's Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, Yammer, a raft of ways to communicate that take time to monitor and contribute to.

Advertising and marketing people are all over these services, using them to launch new products and get people to talk about their experiences with these products. For instance, Burberry, the inventor of the trench coat, has set up a Facebook account for participants to tell their favorite trench coat stories, stories that might spur others on to buy Burberry trench coats.

The popularity of these social networks in peoples' personal lives is influencing what's happening at work. For years workers have been bringing technology they use at home into the workplace without authorisation, at least initially. Remember rogue wireless routers? Instant messaging? Skype? iPhones? The model is similar here. People use this stuff to work, then somebody figures out what to do with it that's productive, sets policies surrounding it and creates a way to manage it.

That's what's happening with social networking, but it's not there yet. The use cases provide benefits that are hard to quantify. Does a Tweet appealing for help on a project actually result in useful information? Does sharing your Facebook page with business colleagues result in relationships that are better for business? Because it's hard to know the answers, social networking at work has to be relegated to the realm of technology that hasn't met its full potential yet. It's in the shakedown phase that will ultimately define its usefulness in commerce.

Green computing

Status: Overhyped but still valuable

This is an overarching category that includes just about anything that uses less electricity, fewer hazardous components or produces a lower carbon footprint being produced or in use. As such, green is a noble idea that is becoming a bigger driver for network purchases, particularly in the data centre.

That is where the biggest opportunity for green networking lies because data centres consume the bulk of electricity in corporate networks. Booming demand for more data centre capacity has resulted in a corresponding boom in new and redesigned data centres. Designers are applying green principles to their architectures because they can generate considerable savings.

Hurdles facing adoption of green principles include the difficulty of measuring their effectiveness and clear road maps from equipment vendors that detail accurately and in standardised formats the efficiencies that can be expected in future products, according to corporate respondents to a Green Grid survey of IT executives.

That study says that respondents call for more efficient devices, publication of best practices, better tools for managing power consumption of hardware, gear that runs at higher temperatures to cut cooling costs and more equipment that operates on DC power.

Recommendations from Green Grid focus on the basics, reflecting that many who responded to the survey have not taken such elementary steps as implementing hot and cold aisles in data centres to promote more efficient cooling and inventorying network infrastructure to discover devices that are eating up power but have otherwise been decommissioned.

The bottom line is that green principles are getting more attention within IT organisations and are leading to improvements that help corporate balance sheets by saving money. But becoming green is a long term project that will be important to businesses for years to come.

Unified communications

Status: Overhyped but facing reality

This is technology that relies on presence information to help workers connect simply and reliably using any mode of communication that is available: voice, video, instant messaging, email, conferencing, wireless, SMS, voice mail and fax. UC technology can be used purely as a means for people to directly set up communications channels or it can be embedded in applications to automatically speed up business processes and boost productivity. So when an inventory control application indicates the supply of a component has dropped below a trigger level, the application can set off notification to a person or to a purchasing application to generate an order to buy more.

A few years ago, vendors met with limited success trying to sell entire UC systems that relied on their own gear. The new strategy is selling targeted UC features to enable specific functions and incorporating existing equipment. So, for example, if chat is a component necessary to a UC use case, the existing corporate chat platform can be integrated, no purchase of a particular chat platform is necessary.

Contact centres are ripe for using UC. Having an application tap caller ID information to display customers' purchasing history on call agents screens, enabling chat between agents and supervisors during calls to improve the quality of service callers receive and incorporating presence information about subject area experts who might join calls to answer questions are all possible via UC.

With so many components potentially available in UC deployments, the range of other possible uses is vast, but vendors are having trouble coming up with compelling cases. As a result some vendors, Siemens and Nortel among them, have made sandboxes available in public clouds where developers can tinker with their products. The goal is to demonstrate that it is possible for customers to come up with their own UC applications, but also to find applications that might be packaged and sold.

As vendors come up with affordable, focused applications of their UC products, the technology will continue to sell. Over time, if they also promote interoperability, customers will gradually build enough UC infrastructure in their own networks so they can leverage it for new uses.