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Top IT predictions in APAC in 2021

The Asia-Pacific region will continue to be a cradle for technology innovation in the new year, whether it is 5G services, artificial intelligence, cloud computing or cyber security

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: CW Asia-Pacific: CW APAC: Trend Watch – CIO trends

The Asia-Pacific (APAC) region was the first to be hit by the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic that has gripped the world for much of 2020.

Hungry for growth and keen to harness technology to leapfrog more mature markets, APAC is also expected to be the first to emerge from the pandemic, before the US and Europe, stronger than before.

Going by the predictions fleshed out by technology suppliers and analysts, the region will continue to be a cradle for technology innovation, whether it is 5G services, artificial intelligence (AI), cloud computing or cyber security.

In this round-up, we review some of the key IT trends that are likely to shape the industry in 2021.

AI becomes a must-have

In 2018 and 2019, AI-centric engagements were few and far between – they were still in the “innovation stage” as trials and small projects, according to Ecosystm, a regional technology research firm with offices in Singapore, Australia and India.

In 2020, AI has become a competitive advantage for businesses. With CIOs and their businesses now using AI to get ahead of their competitors, it is a matter of time before AI becomes a standard feature.

That means processes are smart “out of the box”; intelligent applications are an expectation, not the exception; and systems learn because that is how they were designed, not as an overlay.

“If your competitors are using AI today to get ahead of you, then you need to also use AI to catch up and keep up,” Ecosystm noted in a report. “In 2021, having a smart business will not get you ahead of the pack – it will move you into it.”

All about SaaS

2020 was a breakout year for software-as-a-service (SaaS) providers – and a tough one for a lot of on-premise software vendors, according to Ecosystm. Salesforce, Zoom and Microsoft had record growth and some of the best quarters in their history, while other mainly on-premise software suppliers had poor quarters.

“If your competitors are using AI today to get ahead of you, then you need to also use AI to catch up and keep up. In 2021, having a smart business will not get you ahead of the pack – it will move you into it”

SAP is even accelerating the transition to a 100% cloud-based business as its revenue suffers. Oracle’s SaaS revenue is growing quickly. In its June to August quarter, Oracle’s Fusion ERP (enterprise resource planning) revenue was up 33% and NetSuite ERP revenue increased by 23%, while overall revenue increased just 2%.

The race to deploy SaaS tools and platforms is well and truly happening. Many of the usual return on investment (ROI) models and business cases have been abandoned as the need for agility to drive business change trumps most other business needs.

This trend will continue and accelerate in 2021. Ecosystm noted that most SaaS solutions are implemented by less than 30% of businesses today, which means the upside for the SaaS providers is huge.

The transition to SaaS was already happening without the global pandemic, but it has now been given a shot in the arm. In 2021, the fastest growth in cloud spending will happen in the SaaS market.

APAC to see a ‘platform surge’

APAC is already home to some of the largest digital platforms. However, this battle is ratcheting up in intensity, especially in India, according to Ashutosh Sharma, vice-president and research director at Forrester.

Reliance’s Jio Platforms has already blazed the trail with more than $20bn investment in its digital business. It is simultaneously lining up more investments for its retail platform.

Tata in India has also thrown its hat into the ring with its super app. With Paytm and Walmart’s Flipkart in the fray, India will see some serious competition from these platforms.

Likewise, Alibaba, and Pinduoduo in China, as well as Gojek, Grab and Shopee in Southeast Asia, will be competing in their respective regions to win over digital customers.

5G will finally make impact, with China as epicentre

The 5G momentum has been gaining ground for some time. With low latency, high throughput and other technology promises, 5G has caught the attention of businesses and consumers. However, it still doesn’t have much to show in terms of business impact. This will change in 2021.

In China, with heavy government support, rapid roll-outs across the country and the evolution of supporting technology, 5G will find an ideal breeding ground for innovations across various industries. Sharma said China’s experimentation and adoption of 5G-enabled business models and 5G-led innovation will offer valuable lessons to other countries and enterprises.

Andrew Yeong, vice-president and head of APAC at Tata Communications, noted that the roll-out of 5G networks will bring about profound changes to workplaces and collaboration platforms across the region.

“In the immediate term, 5G’s capability to facilitate increased bandwidth and low latency will significantly enhance user experience for virtual meetings, especially for data-intensive multi-party video conferences. It will also enable greater productivity and interactivity during virtual meetings by allowing applications, such as digital whiteboard, to be more responsive and seamlessly support a wider range of rich media content,” Yeong said.

In the long term, Yeong foresees 5G paving the way to more immersive experience by galvanising organisations to explore how they can incorporate augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) in their workplace and collaboration processes.

This will lay the groundwork for VR conferencing and enable organisations to leverage richer media content, such as enhanced graphics and videos as well as 3D modelling, to augment human interaction, he said.

The CIO role will evolve

As many industry experts have found, organisations achieved years’ worth of digital transformation goals in a matter of months during the global pandemic, said Sunil Mahale, vice-president for emerging technology at Commvault Asia-Pacific and Japan.

The IT function of an organisation will underpin business success amid uncertainty. CEOs will look to their CIOs to drive their business through the waves of an increasingly digitised economy in 2021

The transition to a highly connected remote workforce has intensified the pressures on CIOs. It is no longer just about data, cloud, collaboration or security – all four individual components have collided into a mammoth of a challenge that CIOs have had to tackle in less than a year.

Mahale said CIOs will need to gain multiple perspectives in the years to come. From looking into the ways that an organisation can efficiently harness and protect the value of data to keeping the lights on no matter the disruption, CIOs will become the go-to figure in the boardroom.

The IT function of an organisation will underpin business success amid uncertainty. CEOs will look to their CIOs to drive their business through the waves of an increasingly digitised economy in 2021.

Zero-trust gains momentum

With the move to remote working, further challenges have emerged with the traditional network security perimeter model. The use of personal and corporate devices to access the network via public networks and third-party clouds is creating more opportunity for attackers – and organisations are looking for solutions. Organisations have started turning to the zero-trust security model to mitigate risk, applying advanced authentication and continuous monitoring.

Ecosystm expects the adoption of the zero-trust model to gain momentum through 2021. This will also see an increase in managed services around active security monitoring, such as threat detection and response, and the increased adoption of authentication technologies. With an eye on the future, especially around quantum computing, authentication technologies will need to continually evolve.

Endpoints will be weakest links

As an unprecedented number of people work remotely, internet of things (IoT) implementations increase and multicloud environments proliferate, the attack surface will continue to grow exponentially.

Remote endpoints require the same, if not higher levels of security than assets that sit within corporate firewalls. Ecosystm predicted that in 2021, the endpoint will become the weakest link and requires much greater protection than ever before.

Malicious actors now have a larger number of potential vulnerabilities to exploit than before and few organisations are adequately protecting themselves. Remote workers are often using unsecure home Wi-Fi connections and unpatched virtual private networks, as well as being increasingly vulnerable to phishing attacks. IoT device passwords are often so weak that brute-force attackers can enter networks in milliseconds.

Anomalous activity taking place at endpoints needs to be detected rapidly and responses need to be swift. Managing false positive alerts from endpoints will be a major challenge, as will containing the increased threat posed by insiders.

Although endpoint security can be dealt with through strict policies together with hardware or software authentication, the difficult part is to adopt an approach that retains a relatively high level of security without having a too negative impact on the employee experience. Experience shows that if the security measures are too cumbersome, employees will find ways to circumvent them.

Ransomware menace continues

In 2021, the threat of ransomware is expected to evolve further, with early signs of this already observed towards the tail end of this year, according to Michael Sentonas, chief technology officer at CrowdStrike.

“Some ransomware attackers will shift towards a double extortion model, where threat actors will encrypt the victim’s data and not only demand a ransom for its return but leverage additional payment incentives to apply pressure on the victim to pay the ransom,” he said. “Some threat actors will use a more targeted approach and threaten to publicly release and/or auction the data unless the victim pays up.”

Sentonas said these sophisticated cyber attacks will put enormous stress on the availability of critical services – from rerouted healthcare services impacting patient care to digital banking and finance platforms. Cyber criminals will continue to refine these approaches and experiment with different business models, including affiliate schemes designed to recruit more people to initiate attacks for a share of the profit, he added.

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