But on the eve of 2008, CIO Decisions is going to play the guessing game anyway. Only this time, we're making a hot technology prediction in four major areas of computing: data centers, applications, processes and culture. You're just going to have to read ahead to find out what they are.
All of our predictions share a common theme: Midmarket companies are increasingly looking toward technology -- and the CIO -- to help them meet their toughest business challenges.
At a meeting of some 350 midmarket CIOs in California this fall, Gartner Inc. analyst Jim Browning detected a sea change in the relationship between midmarket CIOs and their organizations. With the rise in cost of raw materials in 2007, many companies that hit revenue projections saw profit margins slip. Increasingly, CEOs are going to their CIOs and asking what IT can do to help get their margins back.
This often means finding a "cool IT solution out there to make business better," Browning says. "That is evidence that the business is becoming more dependent on the CIO and looking at IT as a partner. I have heard that story more than I have ever heard it before."
Data Centers: Virtualization Tackles DR
Midmarket CIOs say they've felt pressure for years to improve disaster recovery (DR) while keeping costs low. But duplication of hardware is expensive when you live by the one-application-per-server rule. Managing and maintaining a second site is a hassle. Third-party providers make disaster recovery easier but can cost a fortune.
Last year, virtualization was all about shedding pounds -- OK tons, of hardware. You saved money and reduced power consumption. Now virtualization can help in other areas, too.
Our prediction: Coupled with upgraded IP networks and affordable iSCSI storage area networks (SANs) and disk-to-disk backups, server virtualization might be the real DR deal for you in 2008.
"This is a change in people's recognition of the scope of what virtualization can do," says Carl Claunch, an analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner.
Take for example Mike Carvalho, CTO of Radiator Express Warehouse Inc., an automotive parts distributor in Benicia, Calif., with a growing cadre of franchisees. He took the money he saved by virtualizing his data center and invested in three more servers from VMware Inc. and a suite of management products to develop what he calls the company's first legitimate DR site. "I was able to duplicate everything I needed in two racks," Carvalho says.
CIO George White of the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General is going virtual by degrees. He switched out 150 outdated servers with 50 blade servers from Dell Inc. and software from VMware. He also put in a dual SAN at his primary site in Harrisburg and at a remote site upstate. A fully virtualized DR operation awaits next year's budget allocation.
But don't let the technological coup go to your head, Browning cautions. "You need to circle back and look at disaster recovery from a strategic point of view. Disaster recovery still requires people, processes and a plan, not just a technical Band-Aid."
Applications: The Democratization of BI
As much as any technology out there, business intelligence (BI) software has crossed into uncharted territory: in-memory analytics, visualization, integrated search. "We are getting to the point where the historic divide between business and IT will collapse," explains Andrew Bartels of Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.
BI has traditionally been defined as a set of IT tools that give business people insight into their organizations, typically with a lag. There is value in a rear-view mirror. A remembrance of things past can inform on the present, certainly, if the data is good. Our prediction: The Proustian approach of analyzing large sets of data after the fact is giving way to highly specific, special-purpose tools that can look ahead and guide activity in a proactive fashion.
To do so, the intelligence must be embedded in the applications, not sitting outside and simply capturing emerging information. Embedded intelligence requires a deep understanding of cause and effect specific to an industry, in a specific business context. "You have to be able to take that knowledge and embed it in a set of rules that say, 'If this happens, then do this,'" Bartels says.
Vendors haven't missed the signs. Santa Monica, Calif.-based Accruent Inc., a software provider that uses an embedded BI engine from Business Objects SA, shifted its focus from retail software to software specifically designed to help retailers get the most out of the real estate they own or lease. Model N Inc. in Redwood Shores, Calif., provides analytics that help the pharmaceutical industry and others calculate the mix of discounts and rebates that will generate the most revenue.
Analyst Kurt Schlegel, who writes on BI for Gartner, agrees that the view of BI as an IT-centric activity -- getting the right information to the right people at the right time -- is outdated. "BI has to evolve beyond that and move toward business processes and business strategy," Schlegel said.
Traditional BI required IT to jump though a lot of hoops, collecting and cleaning up data and putting it in reliable formats that could be queried against. An emerging technology such as in-memory analytics says "to hell with that," Schlegel says. With in-memory analytics, "you don't summarize, don't pre-aggregate, just take all your data, compress it, load it into memory and make your queries." The declining cost of memory and low-cost 64-bit computing enable in-memory analytics to surpass typical disk-based BI deployments. Indeed, midmarket companies are jumping on the in-memory analytics bandwagon.
Vendors such as Applix, QlikTech International AB and Spotfire are poised to compete in the broad BI platform market, Schlegel says. "A lot of the emerging technologies are attractive for a reason; they have good usability and break the IT bottleneck." However, Schlegel tempers his comments with a caveat: "If done incorrectly, you have no control and no standardization, and you're in trouble."
Processes: ITIL's Third Time a Charm
Our prediction: ITIL v3 aligns business with technology better than its predecessor -- and midmarket companies will love it.
The U.K. agency that in the 1980s developed the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) -- the industry's most comprehensive guide to IT services best practices -- issued version 3 in May. It's the first major revision in seven years and it comes with its own drum roll. Vendors like Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) treated the revised guide like a marketing event.
The latest version incorporates much of the content from v2, say experts, yet recognizes that the practice of IT has matured. In v3, emphasis shifts from enhancing the performance of IT processes to serving the business. The approach goes beyond tactical improvements to strategic advice. One of the big differences in v3, says Jeroen Bronkhorst, IT Service Management program manager at HP and a member of the ITIL v3 editorial team, is that the processes described in v3 help govern IT and set a strategy that incorporates financial principles such as ROI.
"If you look at what has happened so far in the world of IT Service Management, IT has really been focused on organizing the activities within an IT organization, calling them processes," says Bronkhorst, who developed the ITIL v3 process maps. "But if you only focus on how you organize the activities through processes, that doesn't say anything about the value that you provide to the outside world. You can have your activities perfectly organized and still provide rubbish."
Mike Tainter, IT Service Management practice manager at Forsythe Solutions Group Inc. in Skokie, Ill., said he believes ITIL v3 will add clarity and consistency to IT processes and help companies achieve better alignment between business needs, goals and IT processes. Forsythe uses the ITIL framework internally and has implemented many ITIL projects for clients. "V3 should help IT organizations reduce their amount of unplanned work, transforming them from reactive into innovative groups," Tainter says.
Ed Holub, research vice president for ITSM at Gartner, agrees. "This a substantial update," he says. "This version is more strategic. It will probably have more appeal to the CIO-level person, rather than just the people running infrastructure operations." Gartner predicts that by year's end 2010, ITIL will be in use by 30% of companies with 250-999 IT employees and by 60% of companies with more than 1,000 employees. "We do see it as becoming the de facto best practice guidance for IT services," Holub says.
ITIL v3 is not a checklist of to-dos; rather, it can be broken down and implemented in chunks. For instance, if your company is growing through acquisition, you may want to focus on the part of ITIL v3 that enables businesses to more rapidly digest acquisitions. Or the mission at hand might be improving the availability of critical applications or driving down the cost of IT or a combination of these goals. "If you can't implement something in four to six months or have it in place and measuring improvements, then your scope is probably too broad," Holub says.
Culture: Green IT
Green IT was in full swing even before Al Gore picked up the Nobel Peace prize. Our prediction: For the first time, midmarket CIOs will have to consider the broader environmental consequences of the IT choices they make for their businesses.
Consider these proof points:
A carbon footprint may take years to reduce, but company culture can change pretty quickly when leadership brings an environmental agenda to the workplace. Ask George Bock, senior director of IT at Sole Technology Inc., a Lake Forest, Calif.-based company that supplies the world's skateboarding population with boots and shoes. "The culture is coming straight from the top," Bock says.
Sole owner Pierre André Senizergues' passion for environmentally friendly practices permeates operations, from the nonpetroleum-based glue now used on Sole's footwear to the just-installed waterless urinals. Sole Technology's headquarters in Lake Forest runs on solar power, as does the new, all-wireless, 215,000 square-foot distribution facility. Internal and exterior lights are set to timers, so "if you're here at 8 o'clock at night you have to go reset the timer," Bock says.
Eight months ago, the company hired an environmental affairs manager, whose only responsibility is facilitating the culture change and calculating Sole's carbon footprint. From an IT perspective, Bock is starting to vet vendors for their environmental practices. Microsoft, Dell and Cisco Systems Inc. top the list of Sole's vendors. A third of Sole's machines are from eco-conscious Apple Inc.
HP is working with Bock on the server end. On the docket: blade server technology to save space, and videoconferencing to reduce travel. Bock's department also ponders other ways to cut energy consumption, from forcing monitors to shut off automatically to recycling.
Meanwhile, the "Blue Brigade," a new internal company committee, monitors behavior. "I get emails every now and then asking why something got thrown out," Bock says. "It takes time to change. We chip away at things that make the most sense. This isn't a one-year thing."