Future imperfect

The release of a new product or technology is often heralded by a wave of hype from vendors, making it difficult to conduct a proper evaluation. ACN gives its verdict on the latest enterprise techology offerings.

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By  Imthishan Giado Published  January 19, 2008

Electronic paper

It's difficult to improve on paper as a display source. Unlike traditional display technologies like LCD, plasma or CRT, paper has negligible weight, requires no external power and is physically flexible and durable. However, it certainly has its drawbacks - heavy usage affects the environment, and it cannot be altered after creation and reused, which eventually leads to storage issues as paper-based documents piled up.

With the arrival of consumer devices like Amazon's Kindle and Sony's Reader, a new alternative has emerged - electronic paper. A concept with its roots firmly in the science fiction of old, electronic paper displays use what is essentially ‘digital ink', whose light or dark display state can be changed by passing an electric current through it. Since it still behaves like a piece of paper, it can be read in direct sunlight, while drawing little power.

In the US, the Kindle is creating massive hype over the possibility of doing for books what the iPod did for music: allowing people to carry their literature and documentation around with them at all times. However, it's hard to see electronic paper having the same impact in this region, for several reasons. First, advanced mobile phones with ever-larger screens have for years allowed users to both read and edit their documents, the latter being of greater significance to the corporate market.

Secondly, it retains one of paper's key flaws - a lack of self illumination - which means electronic paper cannot be read at night without external lighting. And finally, harried executives are unlikely to want to lug another electronic device around with them, especially ones as large and unwieldy as the current generation of electronic readers.


Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is often referred to as the ‘world's oldest new technology'. Originally conceived in the 1940s, RFID tags are essentially an updated barcode system with three main advantages: they don't require line of sight to be read, multiple tags can be read simultaneously and the tag can be in motion while being read.

In theory, RFID should be an idiot-proof means of boosting productivity; without the need to laboriously scan individual barcodes, the supply chain should be able to seamlessly move product from manufacturing to retail.

However, the absence of common standards has meant that few RFID systems are interoperable and the total cost of implementation still remains very high.

Although many enterprises have expressed interest in RFID, if the experiences of companies such as Wal-Mart or Dubai's RTA are anything to go by, RFID is destined to remain just that - interesting.

Windows Vista

‘Vista' is quite possibly the most polarising word in the software industry. Depending on whom one speaks to, Vista is either the most important software release in history, representing the culmination of Microsoft's efforts to add world-class security and usability to what is the world's most popular OS, Windows XP - or it's a bloated behemoth that forces users to upgrade hardware just to get performance comparable to its predecessor, while being no more stable.

Vista's birthing pains have been well documented in the consumer space, with public criticism forcing integrators such as Dell to continue offering XP options on new systems. By comparison, enterprise upgrade cycles have always been slow moving, with most firms choosing to upgrade only around the time of the first service pack being released.

But this time, enterprises may choose to stay away altogether. Most of Vista's features tend to be consumer-facing and of little interest to business users, while a fully-patched XP installation is likely to match Vista in terms of security. Performance is another significant factor - if there are no new features worth upgrading to, but slower performance overall unless on the latest hardware, regional organisations have even less reason to upgrade.

Forrester research bears out these concerns, stating that just 32% of enterprises in Europe and the US intend to deploy Vista in 2008, while more than 84% of companies with 1000 employees or more run XP, compared to 67% in the previous year. These figures must be troubling for Microsoft; while its new OS flounders in the enterprise mindspace, increasing XP usage means that it would have to consider supporting XP far longer than it expected to.

In fact, it reinforces the notion that Vista's biggest competition will be the ‘lesser' Windows XP. Still good for Microsoft, just not quite the result it may have wanted.


On the rarest of occasions, something is so popular that people across the globe clamour for it to come to their region - and it actually lives up to the hype.

Like thin clients, the concept of virtualisation is by no means new. Often misunderstood, what virtualisation does is to take a single piece of software or hardware and create multiple virtual versions which can run simultaneously. Like thin clients, it can massively reduce costs by consolidating and making more efficient use of existing assets - but unlike thin clients, it also massively increases complexity for the IT manager.

Nevertheless, the business benefits are worth the management difficulties. Virtualisation can be applied to nearly every facet of the IT infrastructure, from servers and operating systems to networking hardware. At a hardware level, it can increase the utilisation rate of hardware which would otherwise be sitting idle - think of the typical CPU utilisation rates of a server - while on the software side, multiple operating systems can be run with the click of a mouse. Virtual servers can be deployed just as easily, new applications can be tested virtuallly without risking data loss - the possibilities are endless for the savvy CIO.

From an enterprise perspective, it's even better - by and large, organisations can get by without extensive new hardware purchases, while those starting new implementations are well placed to make use of virtualisation. The major hardware and software vendors - Sun, Dell, AMD and Intel, HP, Microsoft and of course VMWare - have been including virtualisation as part of their general recommendations for some time now and the message is starting to come across - companies and governments across the region in nearly every sector are working out how best to apply virtualisation to their IT environments.

Many are well past the pilot stage as well - expect to see the first announced virtualised implementations early in the new year.

Thin clients

Like a rusty prize-fighter in his eighth round of punishment, thin clients just can't seem to stay down. A technological throwback to the terminals of the 1970s, modern thin clients first emerged when Oracle and Sun touted the idea of a ‘network computer', a stripped-down PC with the bare minimum of processing power which would kill off the traditional desktop - a good idea which failed because contemporary network and server technologies were not up to the task.

But now equipped with the latest enhancements, thin clients from companies such as HP, NEC and Sun have re-emerged as a cost-saving measure. In theory, companies can replace expensive desktops - ‘fat clients' - with a standardised thin client which functions like a display terminal. Another advantage is the portability of server-based sessions - users can physically move between clients and never be more than a login away.

However, what is often overlooked is that investment saved in PC hardware is now being moved to the server and network side, to match the expected heavier utilisation. In any case, commodity pricing for corporate desktops has meant that there are often little savings to be found by choosing thin clients - and regional users still seem to prefer using a physical machine.

That's not to say that thin clients have failed again - there has been strong regional interest from the government, oil and gas and educational sectors which often need desktops with single purpose functionality, which can easily be replaced without disrupting workflow.
But it's difficult to see thin clients breaking out of these niche segments and achieving mass appeal.

Software as a service

IT is the one sector of the typical enterprise budget which seems to be under perpetual review. Under pressure to cut corners, CIOs and IT managers look at the expensive infrastructure purchases they have to make and must wonder if there isn't a better way.

One alternative which has emerged is Software as a Service (SaaS), an interesting new software model where customers don't actually own the software they use - instead, they pay a subscription fee to a vendor such as Salesforce.com to access their applications as web-hosted services via their browsers.

The key benefit of this approach is that it saves on expensive infrastructure and maintenance costs while freeing up IT personnel to concentrate on mission-critical tasks. This is one of the few cases of consumer technology migrating to the corporate arena - most end-users are already conversant with consumer-facing versions of SaaS such as Facebook and Google Apps. (In fact, watch out for Google, which seems to be repositioning itself as a provider of high-end enterprise software services.)

At the moment, regional interest remains low, which is partly attributable to the fact that many of the big SaaS vendors have yet to arrive in the region. Another factor is the lack of available localisation, as well as connectivity deficiencies when compared to advanced markets like the US and Europe.

But the biggest reason is probably that organisations here are simply sceptical of the entire concept of hosted services - CIOs would prefer to put their faith in having hardware and applications onsite, rather than trusting their entire infrastructure to a third party who might be based on another continent.

If it's possible to get over that mindset, small to mid level enterprises might find that SaaS fits their particular bill and allows them to expand their IT infrastructure without breaking the bank.

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