Computerworld

Game-changing IT technologies -- and how they affect the everyday worker

The evolution of IT changes the way business gets the job done.

As IT evolves to support everything from virtualized desktops to mobile and social networking, new advances promise to change the way the business side of the house gets the job done. Here's a look at some of IT departments' game-changing technologies and how they affect the everyday worker.


What IT pros like best about next-generation technology

Desktops anywhere

The battle between users, who are all about flexibility, and IT, which is all about control, is nearing a truce as more organizations evaluate and deploy virtualized desktops. "Corporate IT is all about controlling the users, locking down the devices and making sure users are doing the right thing and not installing unknown applications," says Brian Madden, an independent consultant. Users, however, want more freedom and flexibility than that. "There's a whole new Generation Y, MySpace, YouTube, text-messaging, cell-phone generation. These people turn 30 this year, and are starting to move up pretty high in companies. And they won't take no for an answer," he says. Desktop virtualization works to make both sides happy by providing IT control and user flexibility. Here are three ways desktop virtualization is changing the way everyday employees work:

Virtual desktops. With virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) technology, pioneered by virtualization giant VMware, users access virtual images of their desktops via the network anytime, from anyplace. So, if users need to access their personal desktop files from the road, they no longer need to lug around their own laptops. They can use a public kiosk in a hotel, log on and access their entire personal desktop via the Internet and a VPN. IT keeps the virtual desktop images safe and controlled in the data center.

Desktops on a stick. What if users can't get online but still need to access their desktop from the road? Before they log off from the network, they update a USB stick with the latest virtual images of their desktop and take it along. Then they plug the stick into their laptop -- or even better, the USB port on a public computer in their hotel. The stick is encrypted, so data stays private, but it fits in a pocket -- and that's much easier than lugging a laptop through airport security. Key players here are RingCube Technologies, SanDisk and Ceedo Technologies.

Desktops in a desktop. Some desktop-virtualization software lets users run virtual desktops within a desktop and work whether they're online or offline. For example, a worker could bring in a home laptop configured with personal e-mail, Web sites and files; download a virtual image of the locked-down corporate desktop; and access both from the same machine -- seamlessly. Plus, if necessary, users can take a corporate desktop with them, letting them do company work from home or on the road. On linking to the corporate network, the device receives streamed updates, ensuring optimal security and flexibility. Microsoft, with its Kidaro acquisition, is set to offer this technology sometime next year, while start-up Moka5's LivePC is available now.

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Digital freedom

Many IT shops no longer say no to the use in the enterprise of such Web 2.0 technologies as wikis, blogs and even social networking. Everyday workers who are accustomed to using these technologies in their personal life now can look forward to using that expertise to do their jobs faster and better. "Consumer devices and applications really influence the way people experience technology and conduct business," says Richard Mickool, executive director and CTO in IS at Northeastern University in Boston. "We can't ignore that. Instead, we're figuring out ways to take advantage of what is happening in the consumer world, what people have access to, what's going on in the Internet and use it to our advantage," he says. Here are three ways IT is enabling users to flex their digital freedom:

Wikis for everyone. Organizations from General Motors to the CIA are embracing wikis as a way to gather, organize and disseminate organizational knowledge across departments, customers and, in the CIA's case, other spy agencies. So, rather than spending six months to a year getting up to speed, new workers can learn the ropes quickly via the corporate wiki. Wikis also help make sure that when 30-year veterans leave the company, their knowledge doesn't leave with them.

Facebook anywhere. Once considered anathema to corporate IT, such social networking sites as MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter are being looked to by an increasing number of enterprises as a way to keep tabs on current clients, potential customers and even competitors. In fact, 26 percent of businesses use social-networking sites now, and another 28 percent are evaluating or planning to use them, according to data from Nemertes Research. For many of these companies, social networking isn't limited just to work done inside corporate walls. Social sites are going mobile, enabling everyday workers to Tweet and Facebook colleagues, all from the comfort of an iPhone.

YouTube it. YouTube, the Web-based video-sharing site, has gone corporate. That means everyday workers -- at least the ones whose companies subscribe to Google's online Apps Premier suite -- now can build and post their own corporate videos using YouTube-like technology. Google's YouTube-based Video for Business, a new Apps Premier feature, lets users upload, edit and share videos across an enterprise just by using a browser. While it eases the dissemination of company information, it also ensures security by blocking access to the videos by anyone outside the corporate domain. For the everyday worker, this means there's no need to book time in that expensive videoconferencing room anymore -- just post it and go.

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Speed up the apps

As access to social-networking sites, YouTube and other bandwidth-hogging Web 2.0 applications becomes more critical to the everyday worker, making that access fast and seamless becomes paramount. In addition, more organizations today are going virtual, meaning everyday workers increasingly are working at sites far from headquarters, further underscoring the need for speedy applications. To that end, IT is embracing techniques designed to make working from anywhere at anytime much more productive.

Look to the cloud. Instead of relying on internal infrastructure to host mission-critical applications, many enterprises are moving theirs to the cloud via such services as Amazon.com's Elastic Compute 2 (EC2) and Google's App Engine. Because these services are supported by huge numbers of data centers built from the ground up to be super-reliable and super-scalable, downtime is minimized. Plus, when storage is in the cloud, it can be moved around quickly, which makes sure it's always as close as possible to users whether they're in New York or Paris. This means that everyday workers from even the smallest companies can get at their applications, anytime, anywhere and at lightning speeds.

Accelerate the Web. What if you need even more speed? That's where application-delivery controllers come in. Products from such companies as Blue Coat Systems, Citrix Systems and F5 Networks apply load-balancing and traffic-management techniques to ease Web server loads, significantly speeding page-loading times across the 'Net. For example, financial-services firm First Command found that using F5's BigIP box enabled its far-flung customers and advisers to access corporate data across the Web 25 percent faster right off the bat.

Mega mobility

Who's saying all this productivity requires actual wired networks? Wireless connectivity is becoming more ubiquitous, with the explosion of Wi-Fi hot spots, 3G networks and corporate 802.11n wireless LANs (WLAN); and the speed and capabilities of these new wireless networks are making it far easier for everyday employees to get their work done even when they're not tethered to the corporate network. "Having a broadband wireless connection is really where the payoff [from wireless] comes," says William (Larry) Bell, deputy assistant director and deputy CIO for the US federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in Washington, D.C. The ATF implemented iPass to handle broadband wireless access for agents in the field. "Our agents can literally access applications here in the data center and never leave their cars. And that means they're out there doing real work longer," Bell says. Here are two wireless technologies changing the way everyday workers do business:

802.11n for everyone. Wireless no longer is a nice-to-have: For most companies, it's standard equipment. And that doesn't mean the slow 802.11b/g LANs of the past. Results of a recent BT study show nearly one-third of US enterprises will move within the next 12 months to the 802.11n WLAN standard with its 100Mbps bandwidth. That jump from 802.11b's 11Mbps speed and 802.11g's 54Mbps speed makes a huge difference in what can be accomplished via the corporate Wi-Fi network, and puts wireless workers on par with their wired brethren.

Gigabit Wi-Fi in the wings. Now that the 802.11n standard is set for rapid adoption (it will be final in November), the IEEE is starting work on gigabit Wi-Fi. The average everyday worker probably doesn't need that much bandwidth yet for checking e-mail or creating documents via a wireless laptop, but consider the possibilities. Imagine Joe Worker downloading a high-quality, corporate training video from the comfort of the company cafeteria: With gigabit Wi-Fi, expected in 2011 or 2012, it can be done.

As IT changes, so will the workday of the everyday employee. With virtual desktops, social networks, fast applications and high-bandwidth wireless networks at their fingertips, workers will be able to work smarter, faster and more efficiently whenever they want and wherever they are. Done right, these game-changing technologies should serve to add to worker flexibility while bolstering the corporate bottom line.

Cummings (jocummings@comcast.net) is a freelance writer in the US.