Make your list, check it twice

As the year draws to a close, we find ourselves surrounded by the festive traditions of the season. Jolly old elves and prancing reindeer have been trucked in and deposited on the manicured lawns of corporate headquarters and bask in the glow of the lights proclaiming “Season’s Greetings” to passing motorists. Miniature trees and plastic candles twinkle cheerfully in corners of offices and cubicles. There are way too many sweets everywhere.

Grown men and women in IT shops are making wish lists and formulating their justifications for having those wishes fulfilled. Of course, since they’re preparing their pitches for the business side of the company instead of for a short, white-bearded guy with a body mass index of 35, their arguments rest on productivity and ROI rather than on whether the geeks have been naughty or nice.

Those lists that CIOs and other high-level IT managers make of their spending priorities for the year ahead will be checked more than twice as their companies navigate into and through 2004. Toys for techies are gone from enterprise IT budgets, but technology investment is essential if companies are to move ahead or even keep up with the competition. In these budget confrontations, however, discretion is often the better part of valour. Below are my picks for the technology areas that IT managers should focus on for now if they want to avoid fighting it out with their CFOs — and probably losing.

Storage, especially storage management. Storage falls a little short in the glamour department, but in an information economy, companies must have somewhere to keep and some way to manage all that information. Adding to the pressure is the growing array of state and federal regulations requiring businesses to retain even more information. As the mounds of data grow, users demand easier access to stored data and flexibility in storage resources. Management systems and virtualisation software come with hefty price tags. But no one would accuse an IT manager of going for the glitz for proposing them, and storage is central to almost any business.

Storage also includes the backup and disaster recovery technologies that ease the minds of everyone in the company fretting about terrorism, natural disasters and trees growing around power lines.

Security. You won’t have to fight for this one. Even through the past couple of years when the remnants of the technology bubble were unattractively splattered all over the economy, companies were spending on IT security. Antivirus software, intrusion detection and prevention systems and patch management systems are all essential investments — just make sure they are implemented along with well-crafted security policies and enforced best practices, which are as important as the technology.

Identity and access management systems that include provisioning and strengthened authentication mechanisms can increase productivity along with security in your organisation.

Business intelligence and data warehousing. Carefully chosen and deployed business intelligence systems do the magic trick at the heart of IT: They change amorphous piles of data into useful information and open an avenue to insights that can transform a business. Just be wary of the seemingly endless varieties of software that offer “real-time” monitoring of every peristaltic burble and hiccup in the enterprise, to no apparent business end.

Middleware and other integration technologies. Heterogeneous IT environments are a fact of life — even a blessing, say some. Companies that want to continue getting value from their legacy systems as they add new systems and applications will need the technology to link them together.

I fear that this list is the IT equivalent of the socks and underwear your mother always gives you. But these are the essential technologies, the ones in which your company can’t afford to fall behind. This isn’t the year to ask for the pony. The adoption of wireless is inevitable, and the technology has already penetrated to the centre of some industries, but for most businesses, it’s still a novelty.

I’m convinced that Web services will eventually transform IT, but the technology still operates at the margins, maybe because the standards stack is still in flux. Or perhaps because infrastructure-level Web services are just beginning to receive attention.

Certainly take a hard look at open-source options when you’re shopping for technology.

Keep an eye on voice over IP, the return of CRM, and new search and text-mining technologies that will help you take a crack at squeezing some intelligence out of all that unstructured data piling up in your company.

And be patient. There’s a good chance the economy will be stronger a year from now. The technologies will mature and improve. Maybe it will be time for the pony — or at least the latest version of PlayStation.

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