2016's top trends in enterprise computing: Containers, bots, AI, and more

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It's been a year of change in the enterprise software market. SaaS providers are fighting to compete with one another, machine learning is becoming a reality for businesses at a larger scale, and containers are growing in popularity.

Here are some of the top trends from 2016 that we'll likely still be talking about next year.

Everybody's a frenemy

As more and more companies adopt software-as-a-service products like Office 365, Slack, and Box, there is increasing pressure to collaborate for companies that compete with each another. After all, nobody wants to be stuck using a service that doesn't work with the other critical systems they have.

Over the course of 2016, there has been an avalanche of partnerships aimed at enhancing products for joint customers. For example:

  • Slack and G Suite have teamed up to make the chat software work better with a business that uses Docs, Sheets, and Slides.
  • Box continued to work with just about everybody it can. The cloud storage company announced support for storing Google Docs and unveiled a new app made with the help of IBM.
  • SAP and Microsoft expanded their partnership to offer the HANA database in Azure, along with integrations for Office 365 with Fieldglass, Concur, and SuccessFactors.

And that’s just scratching the surface. As it stands, even tech titans like Microsoft can't own the entirety of a customer's software business. It wouldn't be surprising to see more announcements and see more companies connecting services from vendors that are direct competitors.

The good news is these partnerships are beneficial to customers. Two companies working together to improve their products can help make both more useful for joint customers. There are still some lines that haven’t been crossed (don't expect an Office/G Suite or an Oracle/Salesforce tie-up anytime soon, for example) but just about anything else seems possible.

Machine learning is like sriracha -- it goes with everything

The rise of cloud computing has made wide-scale machine learning possible. Now, enterprise software companies are using those advances to bring intelligent systems to everyday folks.

Salesforce is using a set of machine learning-driven "Einstein" features to enhance its platform. Microsoft is using machine learning to upgrade Office, Google is using it in G Suite, and the list goes on. Microsoft, Amazon, and Google have each launched APIs allowing developers to easily bring intelligent capabilities into their apps without much work.

Machine learning has facilitated some major innovations this year. Google's AlphaGo system beat Go grandmaster Lee Sedol at a game many people thought was too complex for a computer. 

And that’s just a sampling of what’s been launched, unveiled, and pushed this year. This is one of the major battlegrounds for application vendors and platform providers, so expect to see even more in the future.

Major vendors get behind low-code development

Low-code app development tools, designed to enable easier creation of business applications, have experienced a surge in popularity over the past year. Tech titans have thrown their hats into an already crowded ring filled with companies already offering similar functionality.

Tools like Google's App Maker for G Suite customers, Microsoft's PowerApps for Office 365 customers, and Oracle's Project Visual Code are all new tools that are designed to help people automate business processes and bring that functionality to users across an organization.

They join other players like Appian, K2, SkyGiraffe, Salesforce, and Quickbase, which are all competing for that business already. One of the biggest differentiators for Microsoft and Google is that their tools are tied to the productivity suites each company operates.

Looking toward 2017, one of the biggest questions will be whether or not customers will actually end up using these new tools. A Forrester report from the start of 2016 pointed out that few of the low-code platform operators the analysis firm surveyed were able to show examples of non-developer customers using their tools.

At the same time, those tools do make it easier to create apps for end users and can help increase the speed at which technical folks do so.

Bots start coming online

This has been the year of the bot, both for consumer and enterprise users. Automated conversation partners are often portrayed as useful for consumers, but they could also prove useful for enterprise functions like answering common questions or working through repetitive functions.

While bot creation is still largely the domain of developers who have some extra time to work on a passion project, several businesses are trying to simplify it for people who aren't coding experts.

Microsoft just launched its QnA Maker service, which turns FAQ documents into a bot that can handle customer service requests, while Oracle unveiled chatbot support in its Mobile Cloud Service. Salesforce showed off a LiveMessage service that connects users with intelligent bots through its Service Cloud.

Those examples just scratch the surface of the tools available: A number of other companies are offering their services to help create bots, too.

IDC Program Director Al Hilwa said he expects to see bots appear soon in the enterprise through systems designed by software vendors, but more bespoke functionality will be a longer time coming.

"In terms of enterprises developing custom bots, I think we need to see the platforms mature more for this," he said in an email. "I would expect some of these custom bot applications to emerge sometime next year and be somewhat commonplace by the end of the decade."

Containers are going mainstream

The container revolution powered along in 2016, with companies continuing to develop tools that help with the creation and deployment of applications that run inside lightweight, portable environments smaller than traditional virtual machines.

One of the key advantages of containerized applications is that developers can work with them on a personal computer before they're deployed on server hardware. Containerized apps can then be moved without modification and still keep all their dependencies intact.

It's a way to improve the reliability of the end product and also increase efficiency. Containers also help with the creation of microservices applications, which use a bunch of independent services to comprise an app, rather than building a monolithic bundle of functionality.

This year, Microsoft launched Windows Server 2016, which supports containers running its operating system, in addition to more traditional ones running Linux. The release means developers used to working with Windows Server can containerize their existing apps or develop new ones in a familiar environment.

IDC expects that enterprises will be driven to containers because of the benefits they provide around infrastructure optimization and efficiency. The overwhelming majority of containerized apps are traditional enterprise apps that have been shifted into a container, according to a report by the analyst firm.

The mix between migrated traditional apps and microservices apps will continue to shift to the latter. But IDC expects less than half of containerized enterprise applications to be microservices-based by 2020.

If there’s one great thing about the current state of enterprise computing, it's that there is no shortage of improvements coming down the pipe.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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