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Technology of the year

Technology of the year

For 20 years, the InfoWorld Test Center has reserved a special issue in January to pay homage to the passing year's best enterprise computing solutions. This year we continue that tradition, but with a new twist. Looking back on 2000, we shift our focus away from boxed products and solutions to zero in on the technologies behind those products and solutions. Along with the change in focus, our annual Product of the Year Awards take on a new name: Technology of the Year.

Don't get us wrong - we certainly haven't forgotten the importance of packaged solutions. No technology stands on its own. It must be implemented in the form of products, services or tools before it can do any good. As always, the Test Center continues to bring you reviews of the most important cutting-edge solutions, and we continue to celebrate those that rise above their competitors.

But we also recognise that the world of enterprise computing has changed. As a rule, the problems are complex, time is short, the future is uncertain and the stakes are high. Today's IT decisions can affect revenues, market share and a corporation's ability to respond to market forces for years to come.

As strategic decision makers, today's IT executives must think beyond brands and vendor relationships and come to grips with the technologies on which the success of the enterprise will depend: the technologies that companies use to secure their e-commerce sites, to share knowledge throughout their organisations, and to reach out to their customers, suppliers and business partners.

For these and other applications, packaged solutions will surely be part of the mix, but whether you buy, build, or outsource, the technologies you bet on will determine your success.

Which technologies were IT executives betting on in 2000? In the following pages, we identify the technologies that had the most significant business impact on enterprises last year. We discuss how they were applied, what business problems they solved, which vendors led the charge and what IT leaders should want or expect from these technologies in the future.

Top 10 technologies of the year

1. XML

2. PKI (public key infrastructure)

3. Java Programming Language

4. VPNs

5. --WAP (wireless application protocol) online at www.infoworld.com6. -EAI (enterprise application integration)7. Web-based CRM and ERP8. Intrusion detection9. Application servers10. BroadbandXML enlivens e-biz transactionsBy Tom YagerXML gained considerable ground in 2000 and, as the reigning media darling, also had plenty of attention from the press. But unlike other heavily hyped but underused technologies, businesses actually put XML through its paces: the markup language found its way into a wide range of commercial solutions for everything from database management to e-commerce personalisation. Recent updates to development tools, especially from the open-source community, are also feeding the drive to make everything XML-enabled. Sometimes fame is well-deserved.

Before XML took hold, it was expensive and risky to move data between applications. Costly middleware adapters converted data from one proprietary format to another, but you couldn't upgrade your applications or choose a different solution unless a matching adapter was available. The common alternative was to develop application-specific data interchange solutions. But that's a tedious, error-prone exercise.

Strictly speaking, XML doesn't transport data from one application to another. That's a job for EAI (enterprise application integration), also a Technology of the Year (see our online-only review at www.infoworld.com.) Rather, XML is a standardised framework for representing data in an application-independent way.

What makes XML so ideal for enterprise data exchange? First, it's structured. Programs that create and read XML can easily tell whether a document is cut off before the end or is otherwise poorly formed.

Second, XML is flexible. For any given collection of data, the language provides several ways to represent it.

Third, XML can be validated. Using the somewhat arcane DTD (document type definition) or the more elegant XML Schema, developers can set rules that guide the representation of data.

Fourth, XML is adaptable. You can change applications, operating systems, programming languages, database managers and data layouts, and your XML files will still be readable without much recoding effort.

Fifth, XML is standardised. It can't be patented, its use requires no licence and no corporation can make it incompatible with other applications.

And finally, XML presents plain, human-readable text. It can be edited in any text editor, modified by any application that can write text files and stored in any database.

In the coming year, the language will be near ubiquitous in enterprise applications and emerging XML-related standards will continue to take hold. 2001 will also see the emergence of many industry-specific XML vocabularies, which will ease data exchange between vertical applications and business partners. In short, XML isn't going away any time soon and companies that don't jump aboard may find themselves with a lot of catching up to do.

XML makes transactions possible between various systems and applications. In 2000, XML took off when many enterprise applications (such as database managers and document management systems) began to fully embrace the language.

PKI is key to secure e-commerce

By Kevin Railsback

Today's Internet economy depends heavily on the security and validity of information. Commerce cannot happen if customers don't trust the online vendor. Credit card numbers can't be transmitted without encryption, and secure e-mail depends heavily on PKI (public key infrastructure).

In each case, vendors of these technologies rose to the occasion, making sure each was up to the ever-increasing challenges. We chose the combined capability of digital certificates, encryption and PKI as a Technology of the Year award winner.

It's important to note that these three technologies cannot stand on their own. Digital certificates depend on encryption, encrypted e-mail relies heavily on PKI and PKI in turn depends on digital certificates and encryption to be useful.

These technologies are helping companies build their businesses for the Web while ensuring that vital customer and corporate information is kept confidential. Digital certificates are important for many different businesses. They help customers and businesses verify the source of information and files and determine the authenticity of software applications and other products.

In 2001 we will see an even wider adoption of digital certificate technology by Internet businesses. As more companies embrace the technology and customers become more familiar with its benefits, the use of digital certificates will grow. Encryption will continue to be an enabling technology for most, if not all, business-related technology. And the PKI market will help those businesses share and disseminate information at a lower cost and to a wider market. There is still room for improvement in all of these areas, which will help Internet business grow in new directions in the future.

You can bet our ever-increasing processing power will mean servers can handle increasingly high volumes of encryption, PKI and certificates in the coming year.

Although it may not be as revolutionary as XML, this trio was largely responsible for the wide-scale adoption of e-commerce last year and thus richly deserves recognition.

Digital certificates, encryption, and public key infrastructure technologies made a huge impact on how businesses operate in 2000. The growth of these technologies will help this trend to continue well beyond 2001.

Java: A stronger brew in 2000

By Tim Fielden

Java, it seems, is everywhere, and that was never truer than in 2000. Not long ago, Sun Microsystems's programming language was used mostly to animate images on Web sites. Java has since matured into a solid enterprise-class solution capable of supporting practically any business need.

The big news last year was that Java went places it had never been before. Although the language had long been a contender at the server level, many enterprises avoided deploying it at the client level because of performance issues. Rising to the challenge, Sun rolled out Version 1.3, providing not only speedier performance but also a tonne of new features. Needless to say, because the Standard Edition (J2SE) had not been updated since its initial release in December 1998, the new version was met with great enthusiasm.

Looking to meet the requirement of nanosecond response times demanded by both Internet and client-based applications, Sun fine-tuned its libraries and included the Java HotSpot Client virtual machine. The machine made Version 1.3 the fastest release of the Java platform to date, with a 25 per cent smaller RAM footprint than that of Version 1.2.

Other new additions included the Java Naming and Directory Interface (JNDI) for LDAP (lightweight directory access protocol) support, and the Remote Method Invocation/Internet Inter-ORB Protocol (RMI/IIOP) for improved connectivity to back-end systems supporting CORBA. Sun also showcased enterprise features such as applet caching and support for RSA electronic signing, dynamic trust management, and X.509 certificates.

Those who chose to embark on the Java Enterprise Edition (J2EE) path found an impressive architecture for defining and supporting a multitiered programming model. Making its debut in December 1999, J2EE quickly became the dominant platform for the development and deployment of enterprise applications. Making full use of the features found in J2SE, Sun added support for server-side Enterprise JavaBeans (EJB) components, Java Servlets, JavaServer Pages (JSPs), and XML. But what really made J2EE attractive was that it allowed Java developers to focus on solving business problems by leveraging the power and speed of server-side technology, thereby leaving low-level programming details to the architecture.

Finally, wireless developers also found reason to embrace Java in 2000. The Micro Edition (J2ME) was specifically designed to address the programming needs of the vast wireless market. In short, J2ME was a complete, end-to-end solution for creating networked products and applications for the consumer and embedded markets.

Java's emergence in wireless markets was merely another highlight in what was, by all accounts, a pivotal year in the language's coming-out party. At last, the promise of "write once, run anywhere" is fully upon us.

Thanks largely to a new release (Version 1.3), Java has matured into a robust language that can serve most enterprises' needs, platforms, and devices. Java is now easier than ever to implement, and the language is transferable across all platforms. In 2000, J2ME debuted, allowing businesses to develop applications for consumer and embedded devices.

VPNs: The new network link

By Kevin Railsback

Over the past few years, businesses in every industry have transformed from centrally located, one-campus behemoths into highly distributed, tightly networked clusters of offices at dispersed locations.

But one big problem with a distributed environment is the high cost of keeping up network connections between distributed offices. WAN expenses alone can take a huge chunk out of a company's IT budget, especially as the number of offices grows.

That's why VPNs have become such a key technology for businesses trying to link distributed offices and employees. With a VPN, you can link offices as well as business partners without leased lines. A VPN enables you to connect offices far and wide by using the existing Internet infrastructure and connectivity at each office. Moreover, VPNs ensure secure communications between offices, allow mobile workers to connect through their dial-up connections (by using a software VPN client) and make it easier for IT staff to configure client and server machines.

Last year was a banner year for VPNs, both in terms of their adoption and the technological breakthroughs that accompanied them. One of the most important advances was the increased availability of IPSec-capable routers and software VPN clients, which have helped even small businesses roll out secure VPN connections to remote offices, employees, and business partners worldwide. Software VPN clients are now available for all the major operating systems, including Windows, Windows 2000, Windows NT, Linux, and the Mac OS. And all the major enterprise router vendors have added VPN support to their firewall products.

Of course, VPN connections aren't the solution to every WAN problem. If you need guaranteed bandwidth and low ping times for a mission-critical application, you're still better off with a dedicated WAN connection. Nevertheless, a company in that position could still benefit from a VPN; the VPN could serve less time-critical applications such as e-mail and file transfers.

Even though VPNs usually lead to cost savings, they don't come cheap: The initial infrastructure costs of setting up a VPN can be substantial for a large network. You'll need to pay for a high-end, specialised VPN router for your central office - something like the Cisco PIX firewall/VPN box. You can save costs at your smaller remote offices, which can make do with lower-end routers. And dial-up users or business partners can connect to the network with a simple software application loaded on their PCs or laptops.

In 2001, we're likely to see further advances in the availability of VPN hardware and software options. This will ease deployment costs and increase the overall usefulness of VPN connections between business partners. We'll also see VPN support included in a wider range of routers and more VPN client software bundled with enterprise networking and network management packages. And technological advances in VPN management and monitoring will help IT departments optimise their connections - and lower their overall networking costs in the bargain.

The evolving VPN has been a key enabling technology as businesses shift from a highly centralised communications model to a more distributed and flexible one. VPNs allow businesses to perform secure networking over the public Internet, thereby reducing costs.

Day of Internet device on horizon

By Steve Jefferson

The year 2000 heralded an innovation that will significantly change the way we all live our lives, and WAP (wireless application protocol) and WML (wireless markup language) deserve a lion's share of the credit.

Thanks to WAP and WML, last year will go down as the year the Internet reached the mobile device. Last March, the WAP Forum, a group of vendors with various degrees of interest in making mobile computing an economic force, unleashed WAP and its back-office enabler, WML. Since then, mobile devices have never been the same.

The power of the two technologies was immediately realised when introduced into digital-based mobile phones. With WAP/WML, the phone became a network-attached device (albeit one without wires) with enormous potential.

As with any new technology, a few glitches are going to have to be ironed out, but the detractors' biggest argument - that WAP/WML is a flimsy replacement for Web pages - is unfair. In fact, it is the devices themselves that are to blame. Slow connections and tiny screens make for an unattractive package, no matter how robust the underlying technology. The packaging is the technology's weakest link because it greatly limits the capability of WAP/WML to excel.

Expect WAP specifications to evolve dramatically during the next few years. We also anticipate that a number of wireless Web sites will have content programmed directly in HTML/XML to eliminate the translation process and proxy server technologies required to support WAP. As a result, most developers of small-footprint microbrowsers will offer hybrid WML/HTML products. And with the increased services and big pipes of 3G around the corner, expect even greater things from WAP and WML in 2001.

WAP/WML brought the Internet to the mobile device. Combined, these technologies give enterprises a whole new avenue for increasing efficiency and profits.

Technologies to watch in 2001

By Maggie Biggs

It's no secret that the New Economy hit a few speed bumps as it rolled into the 21st century. After several years of record boom and significant advances in business and technology, it would seem that the old adage, "What goes up must come down," is right on target.

But what does this mean for business and technology leaders? Successful companies during 2001 will be those that invest in technologies that yield measurable results. Business leaders should focus on the following 10 technologies in the coming months:

1. -CRM. Implementing CRM (customer relationship management) solutions will be important this year as a way to improve customer satisfaction levels and drive further revenue.

2. -EKP. EKPs hold the promise of increased manageability and richer application support as other technologies, such as collaboration tools, blend with enterprise portals.

3. -Peer-to-peer computing. Expect peer-to-peer capabilities to enter a wide array of products and services, including collaborative tools and portal solutions. The powerful effects of user-to-user, user-to-customer, business-to-business real-time and distributed computing will help fuel revenue and productivity.

4. -Supply-chain automation. Industry research suggests that a 5 per cent net gain in transaction efficiency is roughly equivalent to a 30 per cent increase in revenues. Clearly, visiting or revisiting your supply-chain strategy this year is advisable.

5. -Business intelligence solutions. Getting an accurate picture of where you are and where you need to be will give you a leg up on competitors.

6. -Business process integration. Last year EAI (enterprise application integration) solution providers began integrating at the business-process layer. Expect the management of integration to continue to be pushed toward the business-process level this year, and look to reduce costs and increase efficiency by doing so.

7. -Content management. Invest in content-management tools and services that emphasise workflow automation. These will not only help you manage your online assets but also provide efficiency gains and improved communication.

8. -Wireless technology. Consumer and corporate investments in wireless technology increased during 2000 and the number of mobile devices and their capabilities are also on the upswing. It will pay to support widespread use of wireless devices this year.

9. "-Bandwidth increases. Whether you need to replace expensive circuits to reduce costs or implement broadband to help increase employee productivity, examine your bandwidth strategy this year to gain the upper hand.

10.- "Linux and open-source software. This year will also bring continued enhancements to Linux and other open-source software that will benefit enterprises.

The year ahead will be a challenging one for business leaders, regardless of market sector. Staying focused on driving revenue while increasing efficiency and reducing costs will be the hallmarks of success in 2001.


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