What 2017 holds for enterprise technology

2016 in many ways has been Annus Horribilis: political shake ups, terror and war, the loss of so many musical legends… a year many of us would like to forget. Technology, thankfully, has offered excitement, progress and opportunity. And so I am very happy to focus on the world of technology and business when looking ahead to 2017. Take a look at my predictions for the year ahead. 

1. The skills gap will be reduced through modernisation of critical IT infrastructure

A survey of 1,400 IT professionals by IBM Systems Magazine last year revealed that a whopping 85 per cent of respondents agreed that a mainframe skills gap exists. The last few years have seen an end to the teaching of COBOL - the traditional computer language used by mainframes - at universities and colleges. In addition to this, most respondents reported that the majority of their current mainframe staff will be retiring in the next five years, taking decades of experience with them. 

This could leave mainframes with an uncertain future. But as the backbone of most global organisations, supporting millions of public transactions daily, mainframes are not something that can be superseded by new technology. The average person ‘touches’ a mainframe each and every day, from checking our bank accounts, to booking a train ticket or requesting a quote from an energy provider. When it comes to newer tech, such as the Cloud, the mainframe is not only able to support the infrastructure, but also provides the ability to secure it.

With new, “sexier” technologies entering the market and bringing with them a whole fresh set of coding languages, it would be easy to assume that this makes traditional IT skills ‘out-of-date’. But to the contrary, it has resulted in software companies such as IBM developing “ported tools”, meaning that IT staff no longer need to know COBOL in order to work on a mainframe. These “ported tools” act as translators, allowing the use of languages such as Python, PERL or Java to programme a z/OS machine that might once have recognised only COBOL. IBM also runs an annual Master the Mainframe contest that recognises the top young mainframers from around the world. This year’s contest had competitors from over 38 countries, gaining real-world enterprise computing experience and Rocket was privileged to be involved in mentoring and judging the final presentations. 

Whatever the next new technology may be, the mainframe will continue to play a crucial role and the evolved language capabilities will see a rise of young talent with mainframe expertise.

2. Data virtualisation will allow for better cohesion between front and back-end processes

Increasingly, more organisations are recognising the opportunities that data virtualisation offers and Gartner predicts in its Market Guide for Data Virtualisation that by 2020, 35 per cent of organisations will be using data virtualisation tools.

This is because virtualisation defines a new category of data integration, enabling organisations to be more agile in their management of data. Rather than attempting to migrate data, it provides a way of instantly accessing it from multiple sources, regardless of whether it is on a mainframe or a distributed server, providing the real-time answers customers want.

This is a huge benefit, particularly for big businesses and government agencies, which hold great volumes of data across multiple platforms. Data virtualisation combines it into a single, logical source, which can be shared with any application – this allows you to access the right data quickly and accurately, which will make a meaningful difference to your end-user. By combining previously disparate data sources, businesses can gain more valuable insight into consumer behaviour and, therefore, capitalise on new revenue opportunities. 

3. Businesses will increasingly exploit customer data to tailor marketing activity

According to a recent report by Retail Week Connect titled The European connected consumer: a life lived online, 84 per cent of UK consumers are willing to share their personal data when making purchases online in return for offers and discounts. At present payment apps and mobile wallets do not allow any data sharing but, with the consumer’s permission they could be enabled to track an individual’s purchases and provide an insight into their shopping behaviour to personalise marketing campaigns. For example, a shopper buys a pair of trousers at TopShop using Apple Pay, the retailer could take the data – the style of jeans, the size and the time of purchase – and offer a specific, timed discount on a shirt to match the jeans. 

This willingness to share information is already being utilised in the health industry with mobile fitness applications and wearables such as FitBits and MyFitnessPal feeding data to insurance companies so they can reward and incentivise their customers for staying healthy. This is extending to healthcare provision. Advances in electronic health records, big data collection and storage, and mobile devices can work with genome sequencing technologies to help develop personalised medicines and treatments. 

4. We will see an increasing number of collaborations between technology companies and other industries 

For the last few years we have seen many collaborations between technology companies and businesses of other sectors, in particular the merging of cars and technology.  Many well-known names from Ford, Mercedes Benz, Apple and Google are collaborating to develop autonomous vehicles and we are at the start of a very exciting journey. 

Another industry to benefit from technology partnerships is healthcare. Zipline is a start-up that started a project in 2016 to deliver medicine and blood to remote areas of Rwanda using drones. It is now looking to trial the use of drones to delivery medicine and blood to remote communities living in the US. Drone deliveries of medicine are literally going to take off in 2017 to support emergency care and ambulance services. 

AR is really starting to be seen as an influential tool. Forget Pokemon Go, think virtual detective. In November 2016, start-up Twnkls announced the trail of its Augmented Reality technology with the Dutch Police Force. The police will use the technology when entering crime scenes for the first time to help detect important bits of information. The founders of Twnkls stated that in just six months – mid way through 2017 – the Dutch police will be using the full AR programme.

5. Digitisation will be on the board room agenda of every competitive business

IDC predicts that by the end of 2017, over 70 per cent of the Global 500 will have dedicated digital transformation/innovation teams. Clearly, we have reached the point where digitisation cannot be ignored: it’s the biggest business disruptor since the industrial revolution. It’s more than having an online form on the web site: it means a new approach to processes, new business models - complete transformation. The opportunities for growth, efficiency, process optimisation, customer service excellence are immense and many organisations are committed to taking the leap. 

The dark side of digitisation is the privacy grey area, which is already apparent in the government’s Digital Economy Bill, which aims to revolutionise the way personal data is shared. The contentious section is Part 5, “Digital Government” which allows the government to bulk-share any of your data on its records, with whom ever it chooses, without your permission. Your information could be shared with local councils, charities, and even businesses. Privacy experts are asking for Part 5 to be removed before the Bill is passed due to lack of technical and legal safeguards in place.

Organisations embarking on a digitisation programme need to be clear on the privacy and security implications.

6. Hackers and fraudsters will increasingly target the Internet of Things (IoT) to access company and customer data

Digitisation, big data and IoT are all fuelling rapid growth in the number of devices connected to the internet: Gartner predicted that by the end of 2016, 6.4 billion devices would have IoT capabilities across the world.  IoT, while bringing wonderful opportunities, provides a host of new vulnerabilities for hackers and criminals to exploit.

Even the humble home thermostat could be an exposure for hackers to exploit, selling heating on/off times by postcode to help a burglar identify homes likely to be empty at a particular time. IoT devices can also be used to attack a business, as happened recently with the Mira attack using millions of hacked devices at the same time to flood a website with more than 600Gbps of data.  Who would have thought thermostats and light bulbs could be used to bring one the world’s largest network providers to its knees!

Businesses protecting their intellectual property, like consumers protecting their home, could have real security headaches. You don’t want sensitive business discussions exposed to the world due to a compromised meeting room TV webcam. The IT systems needed to process all of this data will be beyond the capabilities of most servers, particularly when a quick response is expected.  Many businesses will rely on the processing muscle and efficiency of their mainframe for this real time analytics with end-to-end security they can trust.

You may have noticed that my thoughts started and ended with the mainframe. And that’s because, in times like these, it’s reassuring to side with strength, reliability, power, security and progress. Ultimately, in the world of technology, mainframes are our history and our future.

John Procter, VP EMEA Sales, Rocket Software
Image Credit: GaudiLab / Shutterstock