Technology of the Year 2014: The best hardware, software, and cloud services

InfoWorld's 2014 Technology of the Year Award winners recognize the best tools and technologies for developers, IT pros, and businesses

A bumper sticker philosopher once said, "The best things in life aren't things." We can't be sure the deep thinker had cloud computing in mind, but the same thought occurred to us as we drew up our list of best products for the annual Technology of the Year Awards. Long ago, you could press your server's power button with your own hand, and software came in shrink-wrapped boxes. Now it's all off in some netherworld, somewhere else, and we reach out to it with a URL instead of our fingers.

This isn't completely true. There are several tangible objects on our list, but they're mostly hardware that lives in backrooms away from grubby hands. Anyone who buys them immediately hides them away from everyone, so the machines won't get hurt. The rest of the winners are pieces of software, many of which aren't even sold as software, per se. They're packaged as services, which are even more ephemeral and untouchable than the cloud servers they run on.

[ Read about the winning hardware, software, development tools, and cloud services in our slideshow, "InfoWorld's 2014 Technology of the Year Award winners." | For quick, smart takes on the news you'll be talking about, check out InfoWorld TechBrief -- subscribe today. ]

Let's get the real things out of the way quickly. The winners list holds solid server-room machines -- including the Dell PowerEdge VRTX and the HP 3PAR StoreServ 7400 -- that will be great additions to the backrooms of every enterprise that hasn't cast their worries aside to embrace the great cloud of the Internet. There are also appliances like the Riverbed Steelhead WAN accelerator and the Synology RackStation storage system. If you still believe in being able to touch your data, or at least the box holding it, then these machines will help you feel secure.

There's also the Raspberry Pi, a little gift to hackers and makers everywhere that is bringing automation and embedded intelligence to places it's never been before. The Pi is technically a real thing that you can reach out and touch, but it's so small that you could sneeze and lose it. It's also so affordable that you could afford to lose it -- which makes it suitable for all sorts of interesting applications.

Cloud notionsThe rest of the list is composed of ideas, notions, and whimsies delivered through the Internet. Some might take issue with the whimsiness of Apple's iOS 7. If there's anything that's meant to be seen and touched, it's an operating system like iOS. This is a fair point, but the operating system is software that's more and more an extension of the cloud. It's downloaded from the cloud, and it interacts with the cloud. It's really a portal to a bigger, ephemeral universe of services than a thing -- which makes it all the more compelling.

We also included old favorites from Microsoft. Some people may remember Microsoft Office as an item you could touch because it arrived on plastic disks and came with license keys. Those days are fading, and now Office is available as a subscription service from the cloud, where it joins cloud-based versions of Exchange, SharePoint, and Lync. Microsoft Office 365 wraps them all together in a tightly integrated package for businesses of all sizes.

The link between computer and tangible box is growing ever more tenuous. Riverbed's Granite renders real storage almost as ephemeral as the cloud by "projecting" it over the WAN from the data center to servers in the remote branch office. The storage lives in the data center, where it's easy to back up and secure, but as far as branch office users are concerned, it's accessible locally -- at LAN speeds.

Two of the winners this year, the Nutanix NX-3000 virtualization appliance and the PernixData FVP "flash hypervisor," enable simpler slicing and dicing of computing cycles so that one real box can pretend to be many virtual servers. Both products help you squeeze more virtual servers into less space -- PernixData by clustering server-side flash to reduce I/O pressure on the SAN, and Nutanix by eliminating the SAN completely.

We also salute the technology that makes it possible to juggle all of these servers. Puppet and Salt are two packages that organize the creation and configuration of dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of servers be they real or virtual, in the data center or in the cloud. They spin up new machines, install software, add patches, and shut down the machines that aren't needed. There are now so many of the "machines" that we require tools like these to keep everything straight.

App developmentsOur list is also filled with services for fashioning your own cloud services. GitHub lets you offload the job of organizing code. Cloud Foundry and CloudBees are two ways to avoid the tedium of standing up servers and configuring software stacks, instead letting you dive straight into the work of developing applications.

Some of the items are even more abstract. They made the list because they're more than software packages -- they're political causes. Scala, the programming language, earned a spot on the list because it's both a practical tool used to build sophisticated websites and a standard-bearer for the functional programming movement. As they say at the podium, this award goes to more than Scala itself. It goes to everyone who believes in the idea that programs are better expressed as functions without messy, bug-inducing side effects.

The success of this idea may be most evident in the awards given to the many JavaScript tools. While JavaScript is far from a functional language, it is often used in a way that is more and more what the functional disciples want. Node.js, for instance, is a nimble server framework that insists the application layer be written in functions responding to events. It's a far cry from what the dogmatic functional programmers want, but its speed and agility is attracting everyone to the bandwagon.

Such JavaScript approaches are everywhere, and this is reflected in the winners list. There are the frameworks like Bootstrap, Ember.js, and D3, all designed to make creating Web applications in the browser as good as, if not better than, what we've come to expect from native code. All of them rely upon JavaScript's functional callback paradigm to produce cleaner code.

We couldn't mention all 35 of our winning things and not-things here, but those we glossed over are no less relevant. Take a tour through our winners slideshow, and we promise you'll find something useful. It might be something you can touch, or something you have to grasp through a browser. Even if we can't see or touch many of the things themselves, we know they're wonderful to use and they're amazing. That's a definition of "real," right?

This story, "Technology of the Year 2014: The best hardware, software, and cloud services," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in application development, data center, and cloud computing at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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