Wireless technology was the star of the IT catwalk show at this year's Cebit. Microsoft showed off handheld devices combining mobile phone and personal digital assistants (PDAs); Intel demonstrated seamless roaming between GSM, GPRS and wireless standards such as 802.11b; and Palm had Bluetooth access, a Web browser and a new operating system for its PDAs.
But while mobile created the most visible stir at the show, business in back-end technologies was being conducted away from the limelight and in quantities unimagined a few years ago. Take storage, for example, where demand for capacity is doubling every year.
Despite these differences, mobile and storage technologies present IT directors with a similar problem - how to manage them. For example, recent IDC figures put the ratio of the cost of storage management to hardware at nine to one.
This shows a fundamental principle of IT - while devices and their associated software move ahead, the desire to link these to other devices and environments lags behind. But how wide is the gap?
Quite narrow, if the software on show at Cebit is anything to go by. While mobile devices in the enterprise proliferate and cause management headaches for IT departments, suppliers are marketing software to establish connections to the corporate network - making them visible and manageable.
Similarly, storage is on the verge of a revolution brought about by software. Storage area networks - dedicated high-performance networks of storage devices - were the last big buzz in the storage arena. Now they are the de facto standard for storage architecture, but they remain a challenge to manage.
Viewing capacity and managing connections between servers and storage has not been easy, especially across multi-supplier environments. Reconfiguring storage networks is the job of a hardware engineer. Virtualisation promises to change this by inserting a layer between servers and storage arrays. Companies like Fujitsu Softek are promising to liberate previously rigid hardware connections by exploiting the flexibilities inherent in software.
The trend that emerges from these two arenas is also evident in the integration space, where middleware companies such as Tibco are allowing once-petrified and discrete environments to be connected and relationships among them remoulded. At the pinnacle is Web services, where integration across the Net is the goal.
But even with these advances in software engineering, can software bridge the gap between cutting edge technology and effective management? The answer is no, according to Neil Ward-Dutton, research director at analyst firm Ovum.
"The reason is partly to do with technology but mostly to do with market economics. If you have a bright idea about building some kind of virtualisation layer - middleware, integration tools - it's difficult to do it overnight. Suppliers won't commit to a product development project until they see a real need and signs of demand from pioneering users," he said.
"Behind this eternal user adoption-realisation cycle is a fundamental tension between the desire of one camp, quite often line-of-business people, to solve a problem as soon as possible regardless of the long-term implications; and the desire of another camp, invariably the IT department or architecture group, to create some kind of holistic architecture for their company's systems," he added.
So, are we are doomed to live in a world where new areas of IT infrastructure will live relatively separate and chaotic lives from the rest of the business? Another hot technology may offer some comfort. Web services from companies like Sun and Microsoft aim to develop common interfaces between the suppliers' offerings, though there are still competing visions, such as Sun's Onenet and Microsoft's .net. Ward-Dutton does, however, see a decline in the viciousness in the circle of supplier interoperability.
"The small bit of good news is that as the industry goes around this cycle, the degree to which 'changing the rules' screws everyone up, gets less and less. For example, porting a Java 2 Enterprise Edition application from one application server to another is something that is a pain and that shouldn't be necessary given supplier 'compliance' to the standard. But it's easier than porting something from Solaris to NT was in the mid-1990s," Ward-Dutton said.
Managing handheld chaos
Mobile hardware now includes devices which combine mobile phone, e-mail and personal digital assistant. Software allows everything from the basics of diary and contact management through to Web browsing. According to Palm, there are 13,000 commercially available applications for its operating system. When it comes to corporate use these devices enter the work environment largely by stealth - staff install software and cradles themselves leaving the IT department to deal with the resulting chaotic and costly aftermath.
Novell has calculated that the total cost of ownership for a Palm Pilot in the corporate environment is $2,600 (£1,800) per annum, 46% of which is the time taken up in individually administering the device. To address this the company has developed software which is aimed at wresting control of the disparate environments that such unplanned arrivals create. By putting software between the corporate directory and the devices, such as the newly-launched Zenworks for Handhelds 4.7, the business can gain and maintain an inventory of software on such devices, manage it and increase uniformity and efficiencies through targeted synchronisation of information.
Get a corporate architecture strategy
- To keep on top of things make sure you have a central architecture team in your IT department
- Ensure that this team is not just a place where annoying people are put to keep them out of the way, but that it has high-level support - ideally from the chief information officer
- Develop and maintain an architecture plan which details: a) the technologies and principles which are strategic b) those which are not mandatory, but preferred c) those areas deemed not to be strategic and where project leaders therefore have complete freedom to choose
- Ensure that every significant IT project has, as an initial step, an exercise to determine the impact of potential supplier or technology choices on the architecture plan, and to have the project leader justify any deviations to the architecture team
- Having a completely open supplier policy or assuming that standards will protect you is asking for trouble. Sometimes supplier lock-in is good - if it is with a supplier you trust.
Source: Neil Ward-Dutton, Ovum
Managing the cost of storage
Storage capacity need is doubling every year according to Merrill Lynch, and storage spend will be greater than server spend by 2004. At the same time the cost of managing storage is outstripping the cost of simply buying the storage media. According to IDC figures, the ratio of spend on storage management to hardware is nine to one.
It need not be that way says Fujitsu Softek, which is a proponent of virtualisation. Storage hardware is difficult to reconfigure when reprovisioning is required. Because of the complexity of the extremely high bandwidth connection between elements of a storage array, the job of reconfiguring is the costly, time consuming task of a hardware engineer.
Fujitsu Softek claims to have overcome this by inserting a software engine between servers and storage which makes the current capacities visible. It also allows connections to be reworked virtually; rules to be set; reports to be generated and pooling of resources is made possible where previously they had been separate. The proponents of virtualisation promise that it will get storage efficiency up to levels not seen since storage was directly attached to processing devices.