Tech Forecast 2017: 5 key technologies to double down on now

IT leaders plan to use these core tools to deliver business results in 2017

Computerworld Tech Forecast 2017 - Tech Trends to Double-Down on Now
Credit: Thinkstock

With digital transformation dominating the business agenda, IT pros are under pressure to create a modern-day tech foundation sturdy enough to drive that change as they head into 2017. What milestones are they aiming for in the year ahead? Where should they direct their limited resources?

According to Computerworld's Forecast 2017 survey, IT professionals will prioritize security, analytics, XaaS or "as a service" technology, virtualization and mobile apps in the coming year. If you're thinking of adding those technologies to your own 2017 to-do list, read on for findings from our survey, along with real-world advice from other IT leaders.

1. Security

High-profile corporate data breaches, politically charged cyberattacks like those against the Democratic National Committee (DNC), and the October DDoS attack that took down much of the internet have kept security front and center this year, prompting many in IT to ramp up strategies and add layers to their lines of defense.

In Computerworld's Forecast 2017 survey, 47% of the 196 IT professionals polled said they plan to increase spending on security technology in 2017, and 14% chose security as the most important technology project currently underway at their organizations.

Moreover, 15% of those surveyed said they expect security to be their top leadership challenge over the next 12 months, and another 15% said they're currently beta-testing enterprise security technologies. Even those not pursuing specific security initiatives have security on their minds: 19% of the respondents said their primary goal for their most important project is "to meet security, privacy or compliance goals."

At Global Strategy Group, a New York-based public affairs and political research firm, security is always a priority, but it's at the very top of the list this election year.

"As a firm that works with the DNC, security has always been a top thought, but when it becomes front page news, everyone is looking at it," says Andrew Ho, the firm's vice president of technology. Global Strategy plans to tighten things up over the coming year with tools like single sign-on and multifactor authentication, but Ho says it's really less about the technology and more about changing employee behavior.

"We're definitely looking at new technology, but it's 70% about the culture," he says. "It's about changing people's behavior and thinking through the psychology of what really gets hacked. It's not necessarily about a stronger firewall, but about people realizing they can't do things like use the same passwords for everything."

Hiring more people to confront security challenges is another common tactic. Of the Forecast survey respondents expecting to add new employees this year, 30% said the reason was to bolster security initiatives, with 26% of them saying they anticipate new hires in the areas of security, compliance and governance.

They might have trouble finding qualified talent, however: One-quarter of the survey respondents with hiring plans ranked security as the most difficult skill to hire for.

2. Analytics

As companies double down on their efforts to get closer to customers, data has taken on critical importance, with analytics serving as a springboard for success.

Organizations are stockpiling data on web traffic, customer preferences, buying behavior, real-world product performance and more, creating a potential gold mine of insights -- if they adopt the right strategy and use the right analytics tools to make sense of everything they collect.

Some 38% of survey respondents said they plan to increase spending on data analytics (a category that includes big data, enterprise analytics, data mining and business intelligence tools) next year, and data analytics was No. 4 on the list of technology projects that respondents cited as their organizations' most important initiatives.

Moreover, 21% of respondents said their organizations are engaged in a beta test of a big data project, and nearly 30% pegged big data/analytics as the disruptive technology most likely to impact their organization over the next three to five years.

In Edmonton, Alberta, the city government has made analytics an organizational focus for 2016 and 2017. The plan, currently underway, is to build a federated-style data warehouse linked to data marts, leveraging big data tools like Tableau for visualization.

"The goal is to break down barriers and let previously siloed information be available and useful to others to enable better decision-making," says Bruce Rankin, service support lead for the municipal government's Spatial Centre of Excellence.

Andrew Ho [2016]

Global Strategy Group's Andrew Ho

It's a similar story at Global Strategy Group. Over its 20-year history, the firm has collected tons of data on elections, and it's using analytics to identify trends, says Ho.

The next step is to take open technologies like R, a programming language tuned for statistical computing, and visualization capabilities like Tableau and remake static PowerPoint presentations into something dynamic that can reflect trends in polling. "We want to put an iPad in front of a client, change a variable here or there, and see how the trends change," he says. "It's a practice we started this year."

3. XaaS

Another year in and there's no stopping the cloud computing juggernaut, especially as companies retool IT infrastructure for digital transformation.

The "as a service" trend continues to gain traction, with 33% of survey respondents reporting that their organizations are planning to increase spending on software-as-a-service (SaaS) offerings next year, putting SaaS at No. 5 on the list of respondents' most important technology projects.

At the same time, 24% of those polled said they intend to spend more on platform-as-a-service (PaaS) technologies and 27% said they will put more money toward infrastructure as a service (IaaS) in 2017. And finally, 29% of respondents expect cloud or SaaS systems to be the disruptive technology that has the most impact on their business over the next three to five years.

As interest in hosted systems gains steam, 13% of the respondents said they're beta-testing SaaS offerings, while 12% are taking PaaS for a spin and 8% are piloting IaaS. With all of that cloud activity underway, IT leaders are looking to expand their teams' skill sets: 26% of survey respondents who plan to increase head count in the next 12 months said they intend to hire people with cloud and SaaS skills, putting cloud/SaaS expertise at No. 5 on the list of skills they're seeking.

Roche Bros., a 20-store Boston-area grocery chain, is moving as much of its infrastructure and applications as possible to the SaaS model, says John Lauderbach, the company's vice president of IT. Human resources applications, sign and tag printing systems, backup and recovery tools and even mainstream productivity applications have all been moved to the cloud, helping to reduce costs and provide better reliability and 24/7 availability, according to Lauderbach.

"We are four people [in IT], so for us to manage servers, facilitate patches and do backup and recovery work is a lot," he says. "There are people who do this for a living who can do it better than we can."

4. Mobile apps

As smartphones and tablets become standard fare for consumers and employees alike, IT groups are racing back to the drawing board to retool existing applications to be mobile-friendly while creating new mobile apps to court customers and gain competitive advantage.

In our Forecast 2017 survey, 35% of those polled said they plan to increase spending on mobile systems next year. Nearly 10% said they're beta-testing mobile apps, while 21% of those with hiring plans said they hope to add people with mobile application and device management skills.

Cheryl Shelton [2016]

Mott Community College's Cheryl Shelton

Mott Community College in Flint, Mich., has a mobile app to facilitate student services, but it's also in the process of revamping its website to make it more mobile-friendly. Students want access to critical information on their go-to mobile devices, though they aren't married to the idea of a single-purpose app, says CTO Cheryl Shelton.

"We decided to go with an adaptive web design because an app doesn't fit our culture," she says. "We decided to build a robust website and make that work for mobile instead of limiting ourselves and wasting a lot of time keeping an app up to date."

5. Virtualization

The march toward wholly virtualized IT environments rolls on. Companies are virtualizing more than just desktop systems these days and are beginning to expand their efforts to areas like servers, networks, storage and even mobile infrastructure.

Some form of virtualization will be on the docket for 29% of survey respondents in 2017, and of those who are planning hiring increases next year, 18% said they will be looking for people with expertise in virtualization.

Desktop systems are still the most common targets of virtualization initiatives -- 16% of respondents to the Computerworld Forecast 2017 survey said they currently have desktop virtualization beta tests underway. Storage is the second most common technology to be virtualized, with 11% of respondents saying they're beta-testing such systems, followed by server virtualization (being beta-tested by 10% of those polled), mobile virtualization (8%) and network virtualization (7%).

Roche Bros. has already gone all-in with virtualization, using the technology for desktops, servers, networks and storage, says Lauderbach. "Everything we have is already virtual," he says.

Similarly, the Edmonton city government has been pursuing infrastructure virtualization projects for years, says Rankin. "Virtualization keeps going and growing, but it's not at a point anymore where it's strategic -- it's just what we do," he says.

The year of the customer

IT leaders are adopting and applying these five technologies with specific business outcomes in mind. One of the most important is customer satisfaction. Nearly half (48%) of the respondents to the Computerworld Forecast 2017 survey said improving customer satisfaction or the customer experience was the most important business priority for IT in the coming 12 months.

That makes sense to Global Strategy Group's Ho, whose goals for 2017 include improving the customer experience. "IT is here to serve the business; our business isn't IT," he says. "Customers and users are the ones that need to be happy and able to do their work well. The way that happens is that we make their experience as great as possible."

Computerworld's IT Salary Survey 2017 results
Shop Tech Products at Amazon