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Gartner: Mobility, Big Data on the Rise; Cloud Not so Much

Mobile devices and data-driven decision-making tip the scales in Gartner's midyear re-evaluation of top IT trends.

The "internet of things" and the resultant "big data," among other major trends, will drive change in operational technology over the next three years for higher education and other types of organizations, according to the latest research by Gartner. Midway through 2012, the IT research firm is revisiting its technology trends for the year. These are announced annually during Gartner's Symposium, a major event that draws IT leaders from around the world.

In developing its list of trends, the company examines both emerging technologies as well as existing ones that can be applied in new ways, said Gartner VP and Distinguished Analyst Carl Claunch during a public webinar. "Typically there's a confluence of differing enabling factors or technologies that come together at a sufficient level to make it reasonable to do something, whereas before it might not," he explained.

This year's trends cover 10 discrete areas, all of which feed into each other:

  • The use of media tablets and other small-form-factor computing devices;
  • The continuing explosion of mobile-centric applications and interfaces;
  • The growth of app stores and marketplaces;
  • Contextual and social user experience;
  • The "internet of things";
  • Next-generation analytics;
  • The proliferation of big data;
  • The smarter use of in-memory computing;
  • The recognition of the value of extreme low-energy servers; and
  • The continued acceptance of cloud computing.

Mobility on the Run
If there's anything that classifies the current era of computing, it's the use of mobile devices, along with the explosion of "hundreds of thousands of new and more powerful applications," Claunch declared. As a result, he said, "It's creating interesting changes that are potentially going to spill over and disrupt more classic areas of our market."

An example of that disruption is the rise of the "freemium" business model for app development. Mobile apps tend to be created by small teams; the apps often are distributed for free and the user can unlock incremental value in the app by paying small amounts. That continuing opportunity to generate additional revenue can extend over the lifetime use of the app by that user. In that scenario, traditional large software companies tend to play a much reduced role.

At the same time, it's tougher for small teams to keep up with the number of different device types their users want to run apps on. On the IT side, delivery, management, and support will only increase in complexity, Claunch noted.

Among device types, Apple's iPad, with its ability to exploit the existing iPhone "ecosystem" (100,000-plus applications), has given tablets--hardly a new form factor--a new life. Now IT is grappling to keep up with the acceleration of new organizational applications for the iPad and its ilk; for instance, using tablets as replacements for netbooks, for use in forms completion, to do surveys and help in inspections, and to perform image capture and content consumption.

There's no question that tablets are having an impact in higher ed. Last year, for example, Abilene Christian University in Texas added the iPad as a third option for students as part of the institution's one-to-one mobility and mobile learning initiative. However, whereas students choosing either the iPhone 4 or iPod Touch incurred no additional charge, students who wanted the iPad received a $300 voucher toward the purchase; they'd have to make up the difference in price themselves.

According to George Saltsman, executive director of educational technology at the university, prior to the addition of the iPad, about two-thirds of students chose the iPhone and a third chose the iPod Touch. After the iPad was introduced into the mix, 68 percent chose the iPhone, 22 percent went with the iPod, and 10 percent selected the iPad. He added that another 10 percent of students arrived on campus with an iPad already in tow, which put the 2011 fall class at 20 percent iPad penetration.

But the mobile education program has come to a crossroads at Abilene Christian, said Saltsman. "The complicating factor is the multiple devices a student owns/brings/uses. We estimate 84 percent of students will bring a smartphone with them to campus this fall. If that's the case, we would rather move them over to iPad."

Saltsman cites statistics from a study by the Pearson Foundation, which found that a quarter of students owned a tablet as of January, a population that's growing at 400 percent yearly. "We felt great having predicted and prepared for a future that looks like this, but even we were a little surprised at how fast it arrived," he said.

Given that, he noted, "It doesn't make a lot of financial sense to buy iPads for the students that already have one." Currently, the university is evaluating the program and will monitor the situation as the market evolves."

According to coverage on the student newspaper website, it's possible that the school will decide to require all full-time students to have an iPad for the next school year. While the official decision about that hasn't been made, the thinking is that Abilene Christian may make a transition to digital textbooks, a move that could save the students enough in textbook fees to cover the expense of buying an iPad. According to a survey done recently at the university, three out of four students reported that they were willing to fund purchase of an iPad if at least half of their textbooks were available in a digital format.

The "Internet of Things"
Along with mobile comes what Gartner's Claunch calls the "emerging architecture of context-aware computing." This is a mix of location awareness, identity management, the availability of a phone camera and microphone, and the user's social network, all coming together to augment the computing experience. So far, these components work separately. The interesting stuff will happen, Claunch believes, when they begin to interoperate and connect. "Based on what you want, following patterns of what you've done, where you are, and what you're in the midst of doing makes for more natural human computer interactions," he said.

But the interactions don't stop with people, Claunch added. There will be many more interactions between digital objects, leading to the "internet of everything." "By the end of the decade, more than 200 billion objects should be at least part of the time online," he predicted. Already, half of internet connections take place between things, including building and infrastructure management, remote sensing of objects and the environment, IP-based cameras and microphones, content and services through connected products, and the like.

This is the foundation for initiatives such as IBM's Smarter Planet work, where IT technology is embedded into the world in multiple ways--through cars, room sensors, roadways, utility meters, appliances, and other non-traditional IT categories. As the data from those objects joins the network and interoperates with other objects, "those streams can be leveraged to unlock value," Claunch said. For example, a capture of the buttons being pushed on an elevator may be analyzed to help it work more productively during certain periods of the day.

The Day of Big Data
With so much information embedded in the "internet of everything," IT will have its hands full managing the voluminous stream of data, Claunch said. That data will pour in from multiple sources--documents and content, meters, RFID, social computing, mobile and communications, internal applications, and cloud-based services--and will have an impact on decision-making. Eventually, data-driven decision-making will also include more of predictive analytics (using historic and real-time data to make future decisions).

The application of big data in universities and colleges is still limited, commented Diego Klabjan, director of the Master of Science in Analytics program at Northwestern University. This new program, which will educate students in how to work with big data, has seen excellent enrollment for its fall 2013 start. "The demand has been overwhelming and we have enrolled a full class of highly qualified and motivated students," he said.

But in the operational realm of higher ed, which deals with students over objects, it's much more challenging to derive a business proposition for big data. The problem is compounded by the fact that most universities are relatively small in size and "very liberal," pointed out Klabjan. "The limited size makes a deployment of a social collaborative platform a questionable investment, while liberal professors would very soon kill any initiative, for example, to monitor e-mail messages to potentially improve collaborations or automatically find grant opportunities," he said.

Likewise, campuses are too small to take advantage of big data for energy management. "Even with potential smart meters on a campus, their management would probably be outsourced to an outside vendor," Klabjan said. "The situation is similar with admissions records. There simply are not enough of them to require big data solutions."

But, he noted, opportunities for the use of big data do exist outside of day-to-day operations. For example, a university could use social media data to get a better understanding of its alumni and target their ranks for possible donations. Another opportunity is to exploit social media to complement standard evaluations of instructors. "Students are probably much more open with comments outside of classrooms on Facebook and Twitter," he explained. "A university could integrate the sentiment of such comments with classical course evaluation surveys."

The Evolution of the Server
As changes take place in the application arena, server performance is affected too. Gartner has identified two trends here: one, the appropriate use of flash memory; and another, the use of multiple extreme-low-energy servers as a distinct alternative to ever-faster, more capacious servers hosting multiple virtual servers.

Like RAM, flash has the advantage of much faster access time compared to the traditional rotating disk, Claunch explained. However, both RAM and flash are pricier than disks. Unlike RAM, both flash and disk offer persistent memory. If the power goes out or a system fails, the data saved to flash or disk drive won't be affected. To take advantage of its unique benefits, a lot of organizations are shifting their production databases to flash since it makes that data available at much faster speeds.

Yet, that may not be the smartest way to use flash memory, Claunch said, because it treats flash like a file--an inefficient approach. "Unless you rewrite the application, you have to move the whole file or the whole volume onto flash. When you do that, you pay a high price for all of it, not just the part that gets the value. Ultimately, that can make the economics unusable."

Gartner predicts that vendors will begin to offer new ways of working with flash as an internal feature to target performance-sensitive data. Claunch said that Oracle is already showing how this capability works with its Exadata Database Machine, which uses flash purely internally in the design of the product to improve query response.

In another area of the data center, Gartner suggested that it may be time for an "anti-virtualization project." The unstoppable march to deploy ever higher-performing servers to host a growing number of virtualized servers may not always be in the best interest of IT. There may be situations where low-performing dedicated servers have a place, particularly in environments that are sensitive to energy usage, cost, and space. "Most applications are a bad fit," Claunch emphasized. But if IT can find the right applications and right fit, a migration backward does have merit, he said.

Ever-Changing Cloud Formations
Cloud computing is continuing to unfold. Gartner's "hype cycle" for this technology trend shows dozens of manifestations. As Claunch pointed out, "It's not a monolith that's identical for everyone." In fact, the company expects the hype to drive cloud computing further toward the "trough of disillusionment" in 2012 and 2013.

In the space of higher ed, the cloud is gaining pickup in several areas; for example, as a means for delivering e-mail service to students. It's also changing the way people do research. "There's more ad hoc short-term collaboration," Claunch noted. "It's reforming research from a fixed team instantiated throughout the life of the project to a more fluid thing that occurs across institutions and in other ways."

But beyond that, users have many legitimate questions that need to be answered before their organizations will be ready to move to cloud-based services. A big reservation is that people don't have an "instinctive level of comfort" with companies so quickly shifting into the "rental" model, Claunch said. "The people who make generators to generate electricity are not the people who sell you kilowatt hours. The people who make aircraft are not the ones who rent you a seat to fly you somewhere. It's takes a different kind of company to take on the unique risks of rental."

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