Groucho Marx

Reasons to be cheerful

Two years ago the typical IT professional was under the cosh, but technological developments across ten key areas of the IT function mean that things just keep getting better.

1. Hardware costs are falling

Pretty much everything, from desktop and notebook PCs to servers, storage arrays, and smartphones, is being discounted to entice cash-strapped buyers and help vendors retain/grow market share to keep their quarterly financial statements - and their financial profile - healthy. Analysts recorded steep declines in the average selling price of desktop, laptop, and notebook PCs in the last quarter of 2008, with the average price of servers also forecast to fall some 5 per cent over the next 12 months. Overcapacity and falling demand in the computer maintenance and repairs business is also driving those costs down. For IT professionals with capital, and despite the rise of the dollar's value against sterling, it is a good time to negotiate a deal!

2. Windows 7 is on the horizon

Microsoft's next-generation desktop operating system (OS) is in beta, with a final commer-cial release expected in 2010. Early reviews suggest the OS has been ridded of the complex usability changes found in Windows Vista, and it is to be expected that Windows 7's driver support will be better. The software giant has confirmed that it will offer a licence that allows an 'upgrade' from Windows XP directly to Windows 7, meaning customers can bypass Windows Vista altogether. Microsoft has not made it easy, though, insisting that a fresh Windows 7 OS install will have to be performed on each client system's hard disk, with all of the manual back-up and restore workload that entails. (But who knows what untold surprises Microsoft may have up its sleeve?)

3. Few or no large implementation projects

Restricted or flat budgets for the remainder of 2009 leave only essential IT upgrades on the agenda for the majority of enterprises, and so, in most cases, few or no large-scale technology implementations to plan and install. Any resultant lull can afford IT staff the opportunity to do something they rarely have the time to tackle: take a look at the systems and applications within the IT estate to identify priorities, and work out what can be changed and improved to boost the operational efficiency of existing IT infrastructure.

There is still work to be done, natch, in terms of more virtualisation and better bandwidth management (see reasons 6 and 8); but, for the while, IT managers can afford themselves a bit more quality 'thought time'.

4. SaaS/cloud/grid computing providing more cost-effective ways to own IT

Many organisations can make savings on software licensing costs by using on-demand software available under software as a service (SaaS) or cloud computing agreements, which also hands responsibility for patching, securing, and upgrading applications to the software provider. Most of the big software vendors, including Microsoft, HP and IBM, are now making some of their applications available under a pay-per-use deal, though customers have to beware the integration costs that often arise when merging with the existing IT estate. Similarly, organisations can use cloud/grid computing services to lease CPU time to run applications on other people's servers, rather than invest in the hardware themselves.

5. Online storage removes backup headaches

The options for outsourcing data storage and back-up have never been better, with a wide variety of competitive services helping to drive down the cost per megabyte. Online storage providers add new efficient data-storage technologies to the mix. These include: data de-duplication ('dedupe') to eliminate the overhead of storing multiple versions of the same file; information classification, which classifies and indexes data according to its importance; and continuous data protection which backs files at regular intervals. Corporate class online storage and backup services also expand into information lifecycle management, e-discovery, and disaster recovery solutions that help with corporate governance and compliance rules.

6. Virtualisation tools improving

Recent advances in both desktop virtualisation technology and virtual machine (VM) management make server and desktop consolidation easier than ever. New tools from vendors such as VMWare and Microsoft enable live migration of VMs from one physical system to another without halting the VM's operation, for example. These help with workload balancing, high availability applications/services, and server consolidation management. VMWare, Citrix, and Parallels, among others, have also improved virtual desktop infrastructure software. This is a variation on the client computing model, where physical desktop PCs host or display software-based systems downloaded from, or running on, a central server, which helps with desktop PC consolidation.

7. Bad weather shows off remote working technology

The recent snowfalls that brought much of the UK to a grinding halt provided an opportunity for IT practicioners to show just how effective remote-working technology can be. The widespread availability of high-speed broadband links means remote application access, video conferencing and whiteboarding now offer the reliability, security, and performance to support business effectively. The disruption from the weather also demonstrated how IT helpdesk staff can provide effective user support from remote locations using a combination of email, instant messaging, and the wide range of easy-to-use remote control and diagnostic applications now available - many on a free licence.

8. Expanding broadband options build base for new applications

The emergence of ADSL2+ technology delivering over 20Mbps of superfast Internet bandwidth, as well as the spread of fibre optic networks providing up to 100Mbps data rates, means many organisations can make use of high bit rate multimedia applications delivered over the Web for the first time. Video and audio applications can be used effectively for unified communications (video conferencing, IP telephony, instant messaging etc), training and e-learning, while hosted Web videos provide a boost for marketing, advertising and other information delivery activities. Higher bandwidth at remote offices also allows the use of WAN optimisation technology to support centralised storage and faster file transfers.

9. Cost of mobile data falling

Any IT professional required to travel between multiple sites will appreciate the ease with which they can now access email and the Internet from laptops, handheld PCs and mobile phones. Third-generation (3G) cellular mobile coverage combined with Wi-Fi hotspots at major travel hubs, hotels, cafes and other venues, means it has never been easier to get online using a mobile device. Nor does it cost the earth. Competitive voice and data tariffs from mobile operators, coupled with ongoing pressure to reduce the per-Mb cost of data from the European Commission, means mobile email and Web browsing is finally starting to look like good value for money. So raise the cry: march on ye mobile enterprise!

10. Cabling upgrade path no longer a guessing game

With 10GbaseT network interface cards (NICs) appearing in higher volumes at less cost, and 10GbaseT controllers on the brink of appearing in server motherboards, the confusion over which next-generation 10Gbps Ethernet cabling system to install now looks far more straightforward. 10GbaseT switches and cards will push the full bandwidth over distances of up to 55m on copper Category 6 cabling, but organisations looking for the standard 100m distance will have to install Category 6a UTP (unshielded twisted pair) cabling which has been enhanced to reduce alien cross-talk. For the majority of organisations, using 1000BbaseT is still cheaper and easier to digest than going down the 10GbE fibre or proprietary cabling route.

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