Forecast 2013: Giving top technologies a beta test

Restaurant tabs paid by phone without showing a credit card. Advice on personnel issues available to managers on mobile phones. College students' lab work done at home through virtualized software. These are just some of the hot projects that IT shops are working on.

With beefier IT budgets comes more money to try out new technologies. In fact, the percentage of respondents to Computerworld's annual Forecast survey who report that they're beta-testing or conducting pilot programs has been rising steadily for the past few years. More than three quarters (77%) of the 334 IT executives surveyed by Computerworld in June said their teams are beta-testing or piloting new technologies to be unveiled next year. That's up from 43% four years ago.

This year, the top piloted projects involve virtualization, mobile and wireless, cloud and security technologies. Here's a look inside four IT shops that are trying something new with each of those technologies.

Students Get Better Service With Virtualization

For 74% of Forecast survey respondents who said they're involved in beta tests or pilot programs, virtualization tops the list of technologies being studied, and the initiatives include server, storage, network and mobile virtualization.

"Our jump into the virtualized world has been with both feet, and we've done it fairly quickly because we don't have enough time in the day to do everything we need to do and this was a simple and logical move for us," says Stephen Vieira, CIO and executive director of The Community College of Rhode Island in Warwick.

Vieira's IT team has been working with VMware's View and Liquidware Labs' ProfileUnity to bring virtualized applications to 18,000 students on four campuses.

Many students must complete lab assignments on specialized software that was available only in laboratory facilities. But the labs were only open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., while surveys showed that students, many of whom work one or two jobs in addition to taking classes, tackled homework between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. "With virtualized applications, students will be able to use the software 24/7," Vieira says.

The applications, to be rolled out this fall, also let the college keep licensing costs low by giving students access to software only for the classes they're registered for. "We can control the licensing and how many people use it in a period of time," says Vieira. Students can also save their personal settings between log-ins.

The lab applications are the latest addition to the school's year-and-a-half-long move toward a completely virtualized environment. "We are expanding our virtualization platform into virtual desktops, virtual networks and virtual storage solutions," says Vieira. With just 40 IT employees serving four campuses, he says, "our staffing is such that we need to be more efficient and selfish with our time; these new technologies provide the stability, redundancy and resilience we need."

Doctors Get Study Help With Mobile Apps

New mobile and wireless technologies are getting a workout at 62% of the companies in the Computerworld Forecast 2013 survey that are engaged in testing, including 34% that are testing or piloting tablets.

The American College of Physicians (ACP), a professional society for internists, has been testing a mobile version of its medical knowledge self-assessment program, a study guide with a series of questions that help physicians prepare for board exams. Traditionally, the material was available only in printed documents and on CD-ROMs. But these days, many old-school physicians are as tech-savvy as recent med school grads when it comes to mobile technology, prompting the ACP to expand its media options.

For the upcoming edition, the CD-ROMs will be retired in favor of a collection of mobile apps for the iPhone, the iPad and Android devices that will be bundled with the online version of the test preparation materials. When the online materials and mobile apps are synced, users can chip away at the 1,200 multiple-choice questions from wherever they are.

"This is the way to meet everybody's needs so we don't force people to choose between a mobile app, mobile Web or a full version," says Steven Spadt, the ACP's vice president of digital products and services. "The challenge for us is creating synchronization between all of those, so they can use their iPhone app on the train, full browser in the office and iPad at home." The medical society has developed the apps in-house and will launch them in January 2013.

On the publishing front, the ACP is piloting PressRun from Mobile IQ, a cloud-based digital publishing platform for tablets, to increase speed to market and publishing efficiency for its medical publications. (Mobile IQ was acquired by Quark Software in May.)

"Having a publishing platform connected to apps is something we're going to do more and more," Spadt says. The society is also developing a custom iPad application for its Annals of Internal Medicine journal. "We wanted it to be differentiated from other medical journal apps, which really are just print on your screen," he notes.

The Ken Blanchard Cos. is also beta-testing a mobile technology. In June the Escondido, Calif.-based leadership training firm began testing a mobile app designed to help managers diagnose issues with their direct reports and then suggest action they can take to help them resolve the problems.

Built for iOS, Android and HTML5, the training app has been deployed at a large global telecommunications company in Europe. Users can download the app for free, but activation requires a special code provided by Blanchard.

"This is really a step forward in our move toward a lot more electronic delivery of training materials," says Terry Orletsky, vice president of IT at Blanchard.

Classroom Materials Arrive Reliably With Cloud

Cloud computing projects are under way at 46% of the survey respondents involved in testing, and Blanchard is among the companies with teams working on public, private and hybrid clouds. The training firm is putting the finishing touches on a five-year project to build a cloud-based delivery platform for all of its training materials and documentation. To be released this year, the platform, known as the Blanchard Exchange, will handle the distribution and activation of apps for training materials via the Amazon S3 cloud storage service.

"We've pretty much had logarithmic growth in digital materials in the past five years," says Orletsky. "We've gone from 4% to 5% of our materials distributed electronically to now 75%. We're getting out of the high costs of manufacturing, shipping and logistics" associated with printed materials.

Amazon has the edge over competitors in terms of server locations, says Orletsky. "We are a global organization with our business in Asia, Europe and Africa. Having this stuff nearby geographically cuts down on the potential long download times," he says.

In which technology areas are you now beta-testing or conducting pilot programs?

Virtualization (includes server, storage, network and mobile) 74%

Mobile/wireless devices 62% (includes 34% indicating beta-testing tablets)

Cloud computing 46%

Security 26%

Source: Computerworld Forecast survey; base: 334 IT executive respondents; June 2012

The Blanchard Exchange has helped cut costs and streamline operations in other areas as well. Five years ago, as the company expanded globally, it encountered problems getting shipments of workbooks through customs in some countries. "We weren't in a position to pay off people in order to get them through," says Orletsky, adding that in one case, the company was unable to deliver a shipment to India, leaving "classes of students high and dry." The cloud-based exchange helps the company avoid such roadblocks. "There are no borders to digital transition of materials," says Orletsky.

The exchange is also more secure than earlier delivery methods. In the old days, the company used special bindings, plastic tabs and special colors to thwart pirating of its printed intellectual property. Now its materials are protected electronically.

The Blanchard Exchange will include homegrown digital rights management tools to keep track of what customers download and where they do it. "A lot of digital rights management platforms are so restrictive in terms of how people consume our stuff," Orletsky says. "We thought we could do it ourselves by having something useful and easy to use in an FTP platform and have people pick what they want and the number of copies they print."

Blanchard has also found another silver lining to the cloud: a disaster recovery solution. "Every company needs reliable off-premises storage," says Orletsky. "The cloud is where this stuff belongs. It's cheaper and more convenient than anything else."

He says the Blanchard Exchange will be fully operational in late 2013. The first phase, completed this summer, included storage and managed distribution of all electronic documentation in Amazon S3. Phase 2 will provide client delivery and some customer self-service. The final test phase will focus on modularization, which will allow customers to select their own courseware from a lineup of 300 products.

Customers Pay Safely With Secure Mobile App and Device

More than a quarter (26%) of the Computerworld 2013 Forecast survey respondents who are engaged in testing said they're developing security technologies. For example, Esco, an IT company serving the loan settlement industry, and its Portsmouth, Va.-based subsidiary MyCaPa have developed a secure Android app that's designed to eliminate the need to show a credit card when making a payment in a restaurant or store.

"Our goal here is to eliminate fraud," says Esco CIO Paul Robert. "The main source of fraud with credit cards is that the merchant has enough information from your credit card that if it gets into the wrong hands, then fraud happens. So let's eliminate that information from the credit card cycle."

A small device the size of a cigarette lighter connects to the merchant's printer and PC and to secure Linux transaction servers. Customers use a four-digit code printed on their receipt to authenticate and verify payment on an Android phone. Patrons can also use the app to add a tip -- all without revealing their names or credit card numbers to the business, Robert says.

"Only four pieces [go out from] the phone application to the server: the vendor number, invoice number, amount paid and tip," he says. The phone app authenticates the payer through a series of questions and codes.

The devices and app are being tested in "a couple of stores and restaurants today," Robert says, and will roll out in mid- to late 2013.

Esco is also looking to eliminate denial-of-service attacks during loan settlement transactions where hundreds of thousands of dollars are at risk. The company has taken a Linux kernel and reduced the instruction set in the kernel so that laptops used by title company reps in settlement transactions can communicate only with a few known IP addresses.

"TCP/IP only has about 37 commands inherent to it. We decided that only six of those commands are necessary," Robert explains. "If you send the TCP/IP to our server, where these IP addresses are, and it isn't formatted the way we expected and if it's not one of the six commands, or if it doesn't have the encryption we want, we discard the packet."

The technology, based on Linux Trustix, completed six months of beta testing in February and is now being piloted with customers. "We're approaching about 500 real estate closings a week" using the secure Linux technology, Robert says.

This story, "Forecast 2013: Giving top technologies a beta test" was originally published by Computerworld.

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