Virtualizing and other trends to come in IT world

‘Tis the season for prognostications and a time to consider what’s likely to be important in the world of information technology in 2006.

Such predictions aren’t simple considerations, given the overblown hype of everything IT. Listen to the constantly churning gristmill of marketers and you’d swear there isn’t a lousy or non-relevant technology anywhere. But which IT products are truly meaningful, particularly for small businesses?

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Looking back on a year’s worth of IT trends gives some indications as to what might matter in the 12 months ahead. Admittedly it’s no more than a guessing game, since the majority of big IT ideas ultimately wind up losers and long forgotten. Think of the Larry Ellison “thin client,” the Apple Newton, Windows Millennium Edition, switched token-ring technology and BOB (the graphical user interface add-on for Windows 3.1) .

There are more than enough turkeys for this holiday season, but let’s consider what technologies and IT trends are likely to matter most — at least within the time frame of the coming year. Here are five possibilities.

Dual-core multiprocessing: Two or more microprocessors plugged into the same chipset are definitely better than one when it comes to computing. That’s what dual-core multiprocessing is about, and it’s finally here for desktop computers. The unofficial unveiling of dual-core for the mainstream happened in 2005, and next year should see it take off in servers and workstations aimed at smaller businesses.

Dual-core is now fully embraced by chipset giants Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. By the end of 2006 it will be the microprocessing standard. That’s confirmed by Intel, a company that reports, “70 [per cent] to 85 per cent of all new desktop, mobile and server processor shipments will be dual-core by the end of 2006.”

Dual-core brings computing like never before — true multitasking ideal for computing jobs like real-time information searches that run in the background while other processes and operations continue to chug away. Dual-core processing also sets the stage in 2006 for the introduction to smaller business of enterprise-scale, complex computational applications like customer relationship management, decision support, and graphics creation and editing, among other things — and at a price similar to that of single-core chips.

64-bit computing: The next generation of computing in small business comes in the form of dual-core and 64-bit processors like the AMD Opteron and Intel’s Itanium and Xeon chipsets. These hunks of silicon feature king-sized memory caching (a theoretical 16 billion gigabytes of memory versus the 4 GB capacity of 32-bit systems), and eliminate the archaic need for continual data swapping from slow hard drives. That means a lot more data can be stored in a 64-bit memory cache to make data searches and data retrieval a lot quicker, which is important for working with an extremely large database or other types of massive files.

With the anticipated general release of Microsoft Corp.’s Vista operating system, which is planned for late 2006, 64-bit computing will get the push it needs to make its mark. A plethora of 64-bit-based applications will surely follow.

WiMax: As the communications world sheds the shackles of wireline, the time is now for a wireless networking technology like WiMax. There’s the promise and potential of fantastic high speeds and range — 75 megabits per second (Mbps) over 50-kilometre spans under optimal conditions.

In 2006, the technology will break ground as a fixed-point wireless link, delivering something closer to 2 Mbps and building from there. The first commercial products incorporating the WiMax 802.16 specification standard reached the market this year and communication services are coming. Earlier this month, a plan was revealed by an organization called the Alberta Special Areas Board and Nortel Networks Corp. to roll out in 2006 a network that will offer WiMax-based services across 21,000 square kilometres of rural southeastern Alberta. Expect similar initiatives to follow as WiMax makes a breakthrough in broadband wireless communications technology for rural areas. The country’s massive real estate makes Canada a natural proving ground for a high-speed wireless technology like WiMax.

Virtualization: Now you see it, but you really don’t. That’s virtualization for you. It’s scattered computing power and application resources brought to bear as a single high-performance resource. It’s IT not necessarily sitting in one place, but scattered everywhere and tied together by software that links processing and application functions into a managed collective to build a big engine made of smaller separate pieces. “Virtualizing” of everything — from computer processing to data storage, from network communication systems to distributed application function — is what will matter in 2006. It’s already being seen in concepts such as grid computing, and although the value of that concept can’t quite be envisaged and applied by most small businesses yet, the trend toward such utilitarian computing is clear.

Virtualization recognizes there’s a lot of untapped and unused computing potential out there already, and companies aren’t interested in buying more. Instead it’s a matter of making better use of what they’ve already got. That’s what business wants, and in 2006 it’s what they’ll get — through virtualization.

The IT Utility: On a related note, Nicholas Carr, the controversial Harvard Business Review academic who two years ago wrote that “IT doesn’t matter,” this year asserted that it’s the “end of corporate computing.” The time, he says, is now for the emergence of computing delivered as utility-type services — capabilities that customers pay for based on usage.

I think Mr. Carr may be right. Utility-type computing services are in lots of places and, although the world is a long way from plugging into a ubiquitous computing power grid, little IT power plants are springing up all over. Companies like International Business Machines Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. have been among those championing the concept. Just this month, Hewlett-Packard Co. joined the crowd, announcing infrastructure and application-provisioning services for those businesses that need the use of servers and applications to handle temporary surges in computing demand. Expect more IT vendors to follow and more services to appear in 2006.

Concepts like virtualization and computer processing and storage-area network “grids” are among the most obvious examples of how IT gets built in utility-like models. What makes buy versus build particularly compelling for smaller business is simply the challenge for many that they cannot keep IT up to snuff. A need for higher availability and performance in computing is pushing IT infrastructures of many smaller businesses beyond their limits.

It’s why many would rather not do IT themselves. In 2006, they may not have to.