Enterprises and their customers increasingly expect business services to be available and responsive at any time, requiring the underlying technology infrastructure to be ‘always on- always available’. The themes currently driving technology trends for 2012 share this common goal of highly available and pervasive computing.

For businesses, the new breed of technology holds the promise of making them more agile: in other words quicker to respond, compete, and scale their products, services, support and partnerships. The new infrastructure also enables them to broaden their market reach through mobile, web and cloud technologies.
Research firm IDC gathered together contributions from about 1,000 of its analysts to create the top 10 technology predictions for 2012: the technology that will form the basis of the next generation of IT infrastructure between now and 2020. IDC’s ‘future outlook’ included emerging mobile devices and apps; cloud-based infrastructure; platform and application services; Big Data, data analytics and mash-ups; an increase in intelligent communications devices tapped into networks; interactive social applications; and smarter business intelligence.

According to IDC’s market predictions, more intelligent mobile devices, and enhanced network capabilities will be the big growth areas of IT and information management in 2012, with cloud services adoption and enablement close behind.

IDC chief analyst and senior vice president Frank Gens says, “It’s easy to see that this technology will inevitably become the vast majority of all IT spending.” He adds that there is “a generational shift in technology platform adoption and innovation underway”.

IT services giant Accenture concurs with these predictions on the whole, but has some interesting observations of its own. Accenture’s Technology Vision 2012 report profiles six trends that will help IT leaders identify and take advantage of new opportunities in emerging areas.

These are: context-based services; converging data architectures; industrialised data services; social-driven IT; platform as a service (PaaS)-enabled agility; and orchestrated analytical security.

Context-based services is an emerging technology trend where real world and digital data are aggregated to understand “who you are, where you are, and what you are doing” to give consumers an “extremely rich experience,” explains Gavin Michael, Accenture’s chief technology innovation officer.

He predicts that a surge in context-based services is imminent, enabled by the convergence of - and easy access to - many sources of contextual information. These include increasing smartphone usage, cloud computing uptake, social media participation, and powerful new tools for aggregating and analysing multiple forms of data.

“CIOs and other IT leaders who have started to leverage contextual data, to build a deeper understanding of consumer preferences and habits, are establishing themselves as strategic players within their companies,” says Michael. “They are teaming more effectively with functions such as sales and marketing and leveraging contextual services to drive new revenue and deliver more value for their businesses.”

Regarding the prediction about converging data architectures, Accenture says that in order to unlock the value of both legacy and current data, data architectures will need to change, and bridge the gap between old and new databases and systems.

Accenture comments that the term ‘Big Data’ misrepresents the issue surrounding the importance of data – while information volumes will rise, which will be a challenge for organisations, businesses will need to develop new data architectures to effectively handle both structured and unstructured information. This will help them to support another data-related trend: the need to share data far more freely and easily, in order to generate new business value.

Michael says, “The Accenture Technology Vision 2012 represents more than a casual peek into the near future. We believe the trends we have identified hold the potential to profoundly change the face of corporate computing and that IT leaders who embrace these trends stand to gain a strategic advantage.”

Analyst firm Forrester Research has also carried out an in-depth study of the emerging technology trends that enterprise architects should watch between now and 2014.

The first theme is that empowered employees and customers are redefining how organisations provision IT. Then, cloud-based Everything-as-a-service (XaaS) is changing the IT delivery model. Third, 'the app Internet ', in other words the multiplicity of apps that employees carry on their smartphones and tablets into the field, is ushering in a new architecture. Finally, Big Data is expanding the scope of information management.

Drilling down into the technology, Forester's study found that enterprise architects saw the most change and the most business value coming from five main technology areas. These are business intelligence, mobile apps, application platforms, master data management and application integration.

Brian Hopkins, principal analyst at Forrester Research, says that interest in application platforms is high, prompted by the growth in cloud computing. There is an emerging trend for enterprises to adopt 'elastic’ application platforms, a fundamentally new architecture according to Hopkins, to handle variable scale and portfolio balancing.

He warns that elastic application platforms are still very new and highly complex, and have a high IT impact. "A new generation of elastic applications is emerging to help firms realise cloud computing benefits. The platform for this class of applications saves money and reduces time-to-market by automatically scaling processor and storage resources up or down depending on workload," says Hopkins. But he adds that few of today's business applications are actually designed for elastic scaling, and those that are involve complex coding which is unfamiliar to most enterprise developers.

Another major trend for this year, and indeed for coming years, is the integration of so-called social elements, which are currently treated as silos of information. "Tomorrow, social interaction will become part of normal workflows, and applications must be architected from the inception to enable this," says Hopkins. Social technology will become “enterprise plumbing", he claims.

This plumbing will be an extension of the sorts of capabilities that emerged in 2011, when many vendors positioned their applications as “ready for social-layer integration”. Examples of these enterprise social network tools include Salesforce Chatter extending core Salesforce CRM processes, Socialtext being used in integrated solutions, Yammer integrating with Salesforce CRM and NetSuite; and Tibco Tibbr gaining market acceptance for its integration capabilities.

“Social integration has moved from nascent to a strategic differentiator for many organisations. With that in mind, enterprises need to assess long-term social integration requirements with an eye toward the standards their key technology partners support," advises Hopkins. He adds the caveat that social technology integration is complex from both a process and a technical perspective.

Deeper data integration is another key trend that Forrester highlights in its report, agreeing with IDC and Accenture. Forrester predicts that data services and virtualisation will reach critical mass between 2012 and 2014. Traditional integration using extract, transform, and load (ETL) or database management system consolidation is costly and time-consuming, says Hopkins, but data virtualisation technology will help businesses solve tough integration challenges, such as multiple data warehouses and business intelligence tools, and quality issues due to excessive data replication.

Regarding virtualisation for infrastructure and operations, Forester says virtualisation will improve in this context, setting the stage for private cloud, with always-on, always-available being the new expectation, and network architecture evolving to meet cloud demands.

"Over the next three years, we expect to see more focus on virtualisation maturity to raise utilisation rates, standardisation and automation, while only a small percentage of enterprises will truly succeed in deploying a real private cloud," says Hopkins. He adds that a true Cloud requires four essential components: standardised IT services, automation, chargeback or ‘showback’ accounting, and self-service – elements that are currently lacking.

The next-generation network architecture that will evolve to support the demands of cloud computing will also include high levels of virtualisation, replacing today's traditional tiered network architectures. As a result, data centres will incorporate virtual switches within server virtualisation environments; hybrid switches that combine virtual and physical switching; and mesh networking and chassis virtualisation that can support flatter networking topologies, predicts Forrester.

"By moving away from a traditional tree-like architecture, networks will become more simplified, which will permit better end-to-end management and visibility through updated network management tools," Hopkins says.

One further point on virtualisation is that Forrester expects businesses to deliver continuous services to end users by harnessing technology improvements such as cloud-based disaster recovery services. "As competitive pressures redouble and expectations for perfect uptime increase, firms are looking to new high-availability solutions, adjusting maintenance windows, and focusing efforts on IT service continuity and continuous uptime rather than downtime and disasters," says Hopkins.

Virtualisation, cloud infrastructure, big data, social elements and smarter data analysis will characterise the next-generation of IT infrastructure, making enterprises more agile and responsive than ever before.

Consequently, from this point forward, infrastructure will be ‘always on, always available’, says Hopkins, because "today's users, both inside and outside of the organisation, are becoming less and less tolerant of downtime".