The question "What technology will drive the next IT boom?" continues to be a good talking point for IT insiders. Numerous candidates - like RFID or unified communications -- have come and gone already. But when looking at the priorities for enterprise IT, this seems like the wrong question. Instead, it's more interesting to look for new technologies that hold potential business value impact and leave IT suppliers to worry about the source of the next boom.
Forrester analyst Andrew Bartels points to what he calls Smart Computing as the next evolution of IT to bring real enterprise value. Smart is a modern buzzword - applied equally to bombs and phones, to bridges and power grids. Many "smart" devices share two features to qualify as smart - the use of internal and/or external sensors to monitor information, and the use of on-board processing to interpret data and allow for programmed responses. Similarly, smart computing systems combine three attributes in unique new ways:
1. Flexible, adaptable, responsive and extended IT systems.
2. In-built awareness (location, status and condition tracking) and analytics to make IT more intelligent.
3. Focused on solving new business problems or providing new solutions to existing problems.
Smart computing won't arrive through a big bang revolution. Instead, it emerges from the ongoing evolution of multiple technology strands that include unified communications, virtualisation and cloud computing, new network-attached or embedded devices for data collection and interchange, and the emerging family of technology/business services that revolve around SOA.
What makes smart computing important to enterprise buyers - and to their IT staff in particular? Two elements represent a challenge to IT executives charged with planning and managing enterprise IT environments.
1. Smart computing marks the next step away from buying and integrating discrete components.
The pervasiveness and inter-connectedness of smart computing demands a comprehensive architectural deployment. Bartels believes that suppliers will increasingly semi-productise solutions for particular industries. For example, one solution might handle energy conservation for an electricity supply company across a smart grid system spanning multiple countries. Another might support the staff of a professional services company, ranging across the whole technology environment of the firm. In such cases, Bartels believes that a single vendor solution may increasingly come into play to meet the needs of market leading buyers in a given sector. That points to new technology supplier selection and sourcing challenges that may even outweigh those involved in previous technology rounds - like the multi-year ERP deployments of recent times.
2. Smart computing will move control still further into the hands of the business leadership.
Buyer firms will calculate the effectiveness of smart computing almost entirely in terms of business objectives and outcomes. With investment levels inevitably running to multiple millions of pounds, the case will be made not on a tactical cost/benefit basis, but according to a strategic review of the competitiveness of the business overall. For a utility firm at the start of the next decade, a comprehensive energy management and conservation system will be a must have, not a nice to have solution. In that context, the top executives of the company will be involved in the sourcing decision and the sourcing process, and IT will have to learn a new role in steering aspects like architecture, value for money, vendor selection and the like, rather than being the effective owner of the whole procurement cycle.
Smart computing may not be the trigger for a new tech boom, but it makes a compelling candidate for the next big thing in enterprise IT. It will make a refreshing change if that plays out in terms of business value impact, rather than simply driving a wave of over-exuberant spending driven by hype alone.