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IDC calls mobile analytics on cloud the next IT platform

At its annual conference, research firm IDC compared social media-driven mobile data to the 1980s rise of the PC and advised companies to make the leap now.

BOSTON -- The research firm IDC told an audience of several hundred technology users, vendors and consultants that it better adapt now to the reality of cloud-based data and the rise of mobile analytics and mobile devices.

At its Directions 2011 conference this week, the Framingham, Mass.-based research firm painted a picture of the pending convergence of three major trends: mobility, cloud computing, and “intelligent industries” built on analytics performed against “zettabytes” (millions of terabytes) of data that will flow in from social media, the energy “smart grid,” and elsewhere.

“We are looking at the emergence of a new platform,” said Frank Gens, IDC’s senior vice president and chief analyst, comparing the shift to the PC’s displacement of minicomputers and mainframes 25 years ago. “It’s our fork-in-the-road time.”

Gens said IDC predicts there will be 1.3 million apps for Apple iPhones and Android-based smartphones by the end of the year. Behind that, he said, is an even more “startling reality.” In the upcoming year, IDC predicts shipments of roughly 400 million application-capable mobile devices worldwide, the same number as PCs.

 “They’re going to be the predominant end point -- entry point -- onto the new platform,” he said. “We’re not talking about tens of thousands of apps. We’re talking about millions.”

While admittedly many of those apps will be lightweight diversions like “Angry Birds,” some will be serious business applications, Gens said. “The developers of enterprise apps are voting with their feet, and they’re voting for public cloud.”  Gens said IDC predicts that despite corporations’ early, security-driven enthusiasm for private clouds, 80% of new apps will be delivered via the public cloud or Software as a Service (SaaS), and by 2014, 30% of spending on enterprise applications will be for cloud-based applications.

“There’s no question public cloud wins that battle,” Gens said, adding that IDC nonetheless expects most Global 2000 companies will keep a significant portion of their IT infrastructures behind firewalls for years.

Gens cautioned developers not to attempt to bridge the two platforms, as some did--often disastrously--with minicomputers and PCs in the mid-1980s, but to jump right onto the new one. He said the shift to this “third platform” in IT history will come so quickly that both users and vendors should expect shortages of IT professionals skilled in the emerging platform, as cloud-based companies like Google snatch up most of the new talent.

Business analytics, mobile devices seen as application drivers

The emergence of new applications and tech companies built around business analytics and data capture was a major theme of the conference.

“This world is about devices and platforms and services all mashed together,” said Bob O’Donnell, IDC’s vice president of clients and displays. Convergence is also happening among mobile devices, but not in the way some people might expect, O’Donnell said. “The convergence is in the data and the services that enable these things to work together.”

But users are balking at the cost of wireless data plans, one of the major issues, along with Wi-Fi-to-cellular handoffs, security and data synchronization, that the mobile industry must sort out before the devices can become viable platforms for data and analytics, O’Donnell said.

“What we need is a meta platform -- a platform of platforms,” he said. “At the end of the day, what you care about is your data. We want a portable digital identity.”

In turn, IT managers will have to individualize the systems they give employees. “These [devices] are very personal, and the choices you make are very personal,” O’Donnell said. That means IT should expect to support several PCs and mobile devices per worker. “If I’m an IT manager, I’ve got a huge challenge on my hands. You need to figure out a way to enable access. It’s like a personal cloud.”

Keep an eye to the clouds -- public and private

To manage mobile data, IT departments must also get a handle on their data center strategies, according to Michelle Bailey, IDC’s research vice president for data center trends. While “Cloud 1.0” was focused on infrastructure, the 2.0 version will be about who can access cloud services, and how secure and reliable public clouds are for running a business. 

“Security is a show stopper,” Bailey said.  

While most cloud customers -- 53%, according to an IDC survey -- think of the private cloud as a safer, more secure option, Bailey cautioned against getting stuck there. She advised enterprise IT managers to move beyond the comfort zone of private clouds and plan a hybrid environment in which public clouds and virtualization have major roles. 

“The public cloud may take a while, but we definitely see it coming on the horizon,” she said.

At another presentation, Robert Mahowald, IDC’s research vice president for SaaS and cloud services, presented survey results that outlined the present and future of cloud computing and SaaS. According to IDC research, 50% of U.S. businesses have deployed SaaS, and the data suggests that the number will only increase, with SaaS applications projected to grow five times faster than “all applications” in the near future. SaaS has already left its mark on the ERP market, with 6% of U.S. ERP software products currently being delivered that way, Mahowald said.

Mary Johnston Turner, IDC’s research vice president for enterprise system management, said cloud services represent a growing $2.5 billion market that shows no signs of slowing down.

Turner advised the attendees not to make the mistake of thinking that virtualization is an equal alternative to cloud computing. “Virtualization provides the underpinning for cloud,” she said. “Cloud goes beyond virtualization to focus on services and consumption.”

Don’t ignore the ROI of social networking

Another popular topic was finding the business applications of social networking.

At the closing keynote, Dr. Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at the Center for Digital Business at MIT, discussed the value of leveraging social media to improve communication -- both internally and with customers -- and encourage innovation. McAfee said companies are not doing a good job of harnessing available “knowledge centers” on the Internet. “There’s a lot of information out there, but it’s hard to manage,” he said.

McAfee pointed to company intranets as an example of poorly designed social media. “Most people find their company’s intranet harder to manage than the actual Internet,” he said. Working to simplify these tools and make them more intuitive will increase their business value, McAfee said, in the same way the U.S. government worked, post-9/11, to improve the flow of critical information through blogging and an improved intranet. “It allows [government workers] to interact with and meet people they never would have met otherwise,” he said.

The business value of social networking lies in “the shared experience and dialogue across the enterprise,” McAfee added. However, companies shouldn’t assume social media will make everything easier. In fact, it can lead to new challenges.

“All of this is not going to lead to a calmer business environment,” he said. “It will increase the competitive nastiness between companies.” According to McAfee, new technology isn’t always the great equalizer. It can instead be the great divider, as some companies thrive and others flounder.

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