Future IT trends watchlist highlights adaptive security, mesh architectures, IoT

Forward-thinking IT pros are peering around the corner at the IT trends they'll need to plan around in the coming year. Here's the short list -- how ready are you?

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Think future IT trends forecasted to shake up data centers are on a distant horizon? They're practically knocking on the mantrap door.

Technology is rapidly evolving beyond the traditional notions of servers, storage and networks within a data center to form complex digital environments spanning the entire globe. These emerging environments will bring business and technology together, fueled by data and tuned through algorithms to offer powerful new business opportunities.

The most important strategic technologies are poised to affect businesses in the next few years, said David Cearley, vice president and Gartner fellow, speaking at the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo here this week. Here is the list in order of relative importance to today's data centers. IT professionals should take note, as well as prepare data center infrastructure and operations to embrace these growing and interrelated future IT trends.

1. Mesh application and service architecture

At a deeper infrastructure level, applications will increasingly be designed as mesh services -- using microservices-type design in container virtualization technology to launch and scale the component services that are assembled to form the greater application, Cearley predicted. Each component or service communicates through an API.

For the enterprise, such mesh applications will typically be cloud-based, serverless, service-oriented -- composed of discrete services -- and event-driven. Event-driven behavior will become extremely important, driven by data and internet of things (IoT) devices both internal and external to the infrastructure, Cearley pointed out.

2. Adaptive security

Security is another infrastructure technology that must improve to permeate deeper into the stack, becoming an integral part of application design to harden vulnerable APIs and networks. Then, it must merge comprehensive activity monitoring, profiling and authentication with well-tuned artificial intelligence (AI) analytics to detect and respond to any questionable activity. It's not just about guarding personally identifiable information anymore. It's about protecting business data, which has become the new currency of commerce. Guarding proprietary data from the prying eyes of a competitor can give business leaders a crucial competitive advantage -- even if it's a relatively short one.

3. Internet of things platforms

A digital business will require an infrastructure capable of supporting millions -- if not billions -- of connected sensor devices, and this will take orchestration, integration and analytics to handle. The challenge is IoT devices and supporting technologies are still immature, and it is difficult to achieve end-to-end interoperability from a single vendor -- yet. There are numerous vendors in the space, including Google, Azure, Oracle, SAP and GE -- and more will inevitably arrive. But use care in selecting and integrating IoT vendors into the infrastructure to minimize costly lock-in.

4. Augmented and virtual reality

Many IT pundits predict enormous growth in augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) to enhance objects and places with useful contextual information, or simulate human reality and help people make better decisions in less time. The interfaces are now well-established using head-mounted devices and mobile devices, such as tablets and smartphones.

Most applications for AR and VR are more consumer-oriented: They help people visualize a trip; plan a project -- a kitchen remodel, for example; play games; undergo medical therapies; and so on. However, there are some possible business-related applications: They simulate complex procedures, improve training and remote support, and conduct modeling and analytics.

"For targeted business uses, it's significant," Cearley said -- showing statistics that suggest, by 2020, 46% of the customer-perceived value proposition of products and services will be digital. And in the nearer term, AR and VR also are more likely to provide a tangible benefit to businesses, and require less groundwork to implement, than the next trend on this list.

5. Advanced machine learning and artificial intelligence

AI will emerge as the primary battleground for service providers by 2020, Cearley said. This isn't a single trend, but the result of convergence, coupling powerful machine-learning algorithms with the more than 21 billion connected IoT sensors and endpoints expected to be deployed by then.

AI is still far from human simulations, but its application should grow for specific, well-scoped purposes to deal with high levels of complex data, understand, learn, predict and adapt to changing information, and act autonomously. There is also enormous potential for AI training -- by 2020, 20% of enterprises will employ dedicated people to train neural networks, Cearley said. "AI can make mistakes," he said. "That's not a bug -- it [the AI] just hasn't learned it yet."

6. Digital twins

The growing need to model, monitor and predict the behavior of real-world things is leading to the creation of digital twins, which provide a dynamic software model of a thing or system, using sensors and other data to understand its state, handle changes and improve operations. For example, a plane, wind turbine or many other complex and potentially dangerous things can be modeled with real data, which -- combined with AI algorithms and machine learning -- can help tailor maintenance, predict failures and optimize performance.

As a more enterprise IT-specific example, a digital twin might be able to predict the effect of a configuration change on a system, and then track or monitor the actual performance after the change is made in real life to determine how closely the real system matches the model.

7. Intelligent applications

The enormous growth in IoT deployment and access to comprehensive data will drive more use of intelligent applications. One popular example is intelligent advisers and assistants, based on interfaces such as Siri and Cortana. But the potential for intelligent applications also extends to healthcare systems able to digest complex, chaotic, unstructured content to advise doctors in potential courses of treatment or diagnostics. Other areas of interest for intelligent applications include smart enterprise applications, operational applications and smart security software platforms. The point, Cearley said, is to design and create such applications with the human at the center -- to really assist the human.

8. Conversational systems

Traditional human/machine interfaces occur through buttons, gestures and icons, but the rise of AI and machine learning will enable conversational -- voice-only -- interfaces, Cearley noted. Personal assistants, such as Siri, Xiaoi, Cortana and others, are relatively simple implementations of this idea, but as AI gains a deeper understanding of human communications, more complex engagement based on context and collaboration will provide a more thorough user experience -- rather than today's focus on devices or apps. By 2018, 25 or more conversational AI systems will be available, Cearley predicted: "It's one piece of the larger user experience."

9. Intelligent things

Expect intelligence to permeate a wide range of devices in order to adapt and make better decisions on the fly. These likely will emerge as intelligent applications that consume data and apply AI algorithms to make tangible decisions in the real world. Examples include consumer devices, such as Amazon Echo, Google DeepMind for healthcare tasks -- including cancer analysis and diagnosis; adding intelligence to the industrial modules used in buildings; and autonomous vehicles that include cars, trains, trucks and even ships.

10. Blockchain and distributed ledger

Trust is a precious and critical commodity in untrusted environments. blockchain technologies offer a mechanism that can bring trust to untrusted global environments by applying an irrevocable record of significant data and events, Cearley explained. Monetary transactions are just the beginning -- the technology is still being developed and refined to be applied to contracts, documents and other important business or legal records, such as trading, tracking commodities and so on. "It reduces the friction in business," Cearley said, and "the transaction is part of the business."

While events such as the Gartner Symposium are ideal places to look ahead and consider the potential future of technology, IT and enterprise business, these are indeed predictions. Not all of these IT trends may occur within the timetables Cearley mentioned, but it's clear these concepts are taking hold. IT leaders should take heed and prepare the business for some of these changes that lie ahead.

Stephen J. Bigelow is the senior technology editor of the Data Center and Virtualization Media Group. He can be reached at [email protected] and @DatacenterTT.

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