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How 2015 predictions ended – and what to do about it

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At the beginning of 2015 some major predictions where made. DAN MATTHEWS & MARTIN GUNNARSSON of IFS look at these and comment on whether they will still hold water in 2016.

At the beginning of 2015 we saw some attention-grabbing predictions that suggested major changes were afoot in the IT industry. There have been some notable developments over the course of the year, but it will be interesting to see whether all of the predictions still hold water as the days grow shorter and we begin to look at what 2016 and onwards may hold in store.

We took some of the key predictions made at the start of the year and looked at them under the microscope to see whether the developments they suggest are likely to come true.

“Hybrid cloud is the future”

From tools to enable group decision on where to place the coffee machine in an office, all the way up to using Office 365 exchange and enterprise CRM systems, cloud services are being used today in a vast array of ways across different environments.

However, very few organisations have adopted full cloud services. Usually only very small and/or new start-ups that don’t have a legacy setups or the funds to purchase infrastructures will go fully into the cloud. Most will operate using a hybrid cloud model because they already have existing business critical infrastructure in place, and this architecture is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

As cloud continues to play a bit-part role, many predict the hybrid setup will become an ever greater part of the ecosystem. Gartner, for example, believes that hybrid enterprise resource planning (ERP) environments will be the norm within five years, and it looks like this will be the case as businesses look to mix third party solutions with their in-house cloud architectures.

Trust in cloud services is growing as more people begin using it in their personal and professional lives. And this isn’t just happening in the general public cloud, the so-called ‘mega cloud’ environments are becoming more trustworthy too, as the likes of Amazon and IBM have developed services that can match the needs of large enterprises. This is leading to this architectural evolution.

Over time, onsite services require replacement or updating. When this happens it’s time for organisations to consider whether to invest in their own services, and the competence requirements that go with it, or to buy that solution as a service within the cloud. As companies often have hundreds of different solutions used by different people, cloud can be a more effective way of delivering business critical services.

A hybrid infrastructure enables an organisation to try things out in pockets, ring-fencing a particular development to test it first before instigating a full rollout. The ability to test updates and solutions within a small environment before full implementation can make the end result more effective and less susceptible to bugs that may only be spotted within a live environment.

So if you’re planning updates, what should you do? There are three key things to think about:

1)    Maintain a continuous inventory on what cloud services your people are using – try and catch up with people and what they’re doing to try to pre-empt them. For example, if they’re using Google Docs a lot, make it an official service to use, then you can manage it more effectively

2)    As you’re updating, renovating, replacing legacy systems – consider whether to instead use the cloud – carry out a full cost/benefit analysis of every service

3)    Go and use the big public cloud services where possible as they have solutions around the world, and the best communications backbone to support them

“Mobility is the new normal”

The growth of hybrid cloud solutions is also helping to create a new normal for a mobile workforce, where business smartphones are a core part of business implementation and delivery. At the start of the year some predicted mobility would become a much more dominant factor within the business landscape. While it is true that enterprise mobility is on the rise, we should not lose sight of the fact most of what we do and achieve is done at a desk.

The fact is that mobility really means more than just the device that fits in your pocket. Technology development means that bulky laptops are being replaced by powerful tablets. The Microsoft Surface Pro, for example, has the power of a laptop but the mobility of a tablet that enables an interface where the user can work anywhere in the same way that they would in a traditional office environment.

What does this mean for companies? It means that when selecting software, flexibility is key. It simply has to work across a wide range of devices. This is particularly important when you consider that there are three main groups of users; casual, professional and general.

Casual users are driven by what works best for them, and will choose devices to match this wish. This is where you will find the widest array of devices and platforms. Professional users, such as a mobile workforce, are usually more open to being supplied with a certain device to fit with their needs, but remember they also double up as casual users too as they will want to do simple tasks like checking email. General office users are those based in the office with little mobile movement.

When considering an organisation’s mobility policy businesses need to:

1)    Decide whether to try and control the devices and apps people use, or let people choose for themselves? But bear in mind not everyone will agree with your policy (particularly if it impinges on their freedom) and may opt to use their own devices

2)    Be platform agnostic, especially if you choose not to control the devices people choose. Services need to operate across all three major mobile operating systems, because people will choose what works best for them, not necessarily what works best for you.

“Underwhelming wearables”

A major buzzword in mobility is wearables. It’s an area where there has been disappointment in 2015 as it hasn’t come true in the way many had hoped it would – Google Glass was arguably one of the highest profile wearable flops on the consumer market. While it’s still a very interesting avenue the scale simply hasn’t happened in 2015. What’s interesting is that others are now looking at this differently. Sony, for example, is designing smart glasses that will be used by professionals, not consumers as Glass originally was due to be.

So what should the IT department do when considering a wearable policy?

1)    Wait. Watch the market and monitor for interesting innovations but don’t necessarily invest yet, there’s probably still more to come

2)    Don’t think that they will necessarily replace established methods. Using a warehouse as an example, many already have audio instructions delivered by an earpiece and workers use finger-mounted barcode scanners. Make sure you’re thinking through the real difference wearable technology will make, and the value it will add

“Internet of Things will become about software not hardware, platforms not devices”

The Internet of Things (IoT) has spawned a wide variety of quirky ideas, from smart fridges that can tell you when you need more milk to smart homes that ‘know’ you’re home and can control the heating accordingly. In truth though we’re some way from seeing IoT in the mainstream.

Industrial examples of IoT do crop up, though they are hardly commonplace – it’s a slower game. This is largely because examples of IoT in the field tend to be unique solutions to a given challenge, and so standardisation is limited. The benefits and techniques of IoT are not commonly understood and it is a broadly unproven technology, so it takes a far-sighted business to see how it could best use IoT. Then, from a practical standpoint, that business would need to investigate and install the various components required to make a solution work, and it would have to learn how to go about doing business in a way that takes advantage of the technology and either reduces costs or drives revenue growth.

With that in mind it’s important to consider the following when debating whether to roll out IoT:

1)    Do you have the money to invest in it now and will it actually deliver a return on your investment?

2)    Start at the end. Think about what your end goal will be before you think about whether it’s worth that initial investment

“Investment in Software-as-a-Service will grow”

Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) is now a commonly used phrase, with many predicting a rapid uptake by business. PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC), for example, has predicted $78 billion will be invested by 2016.

There are a range of options when purchasing SaaS solutions. The cheaper and potentially easier – at the start – is buying a solution off the shelf that someone else controls. While this may be useful in some situations, in a context where a degree of control is required this can cause pain for the organisation – having an update forced upon your team when they’re in the middle of a big project isn’t going to help the company. In some instances, you will require more control over the solution, and need to be able to make special requests and time updates to fit with the company demands.

This is, of course, in contrast to the growth of a hybrid cloud infrastructure, because the SaaS model often relies on third party architecture. Deploying software platforms into the cloud can be fast, secure and cost-effective, but only if it fits with the company. SaaS won’t work for every business, because every business is different. If, for example, you’re a startup that doesn’t want to or isn’t able to build out its IT team, a SaaS model makes sense. But if your company is security heavy with multiple firewalls and restrictions, it may be that a private cloud infrastructure without SaaS is a better direction – it really depends on the context as to whether this is a good model and will help to decide if this growth really will continue at this level.

There are two alternatives to this model that organisations could implement. Multitenant and single tenant. Multitenant works where you have lots of companies operating within the same database system, for example a large multinational with many brands with the parent company, and this can work for them. However, it does mean you are restricted as to what type customisations and configurations you can make.

The other primary alternative is single tenant, which can be much more effective. Organisations pay on a subscription basis with access to a hybrid cloud solution that incorporates a degree of SaaS and security through the private cloud partition. This enables the individual business to choose what it wants according to its needs, without constraints, and is much more secure.

Choosing a SaaS model to fit your organisation’s needs therefore requires thought and you should consider the following before diving in:

1)    Think about the level of control you need. If you’re running a mail server then you won’t need much, but if you’re developing a business critical solution you need as much control as possible, and this affects the investment decision

2)    Seriously consider the single tenant option, as it can create a more secure environment that is able to adapt to the needs of the business

There’s no doubting we’re on course for more impressive developments within IT, and the next few years will be an exciting time to work in the industry. What will be interesting to see is what the ‘next big thing’ is and if, under scrutiny, predictions around it are actually likely to come true.

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IoT at tipping point

We have long been in the hype phase of IoT, but it is finally taking on a more concrete form illustrating its benefits to business and the public at large, says PAUL RUINAARD, Country Manager at Nutanix Sub-Saharan Africa.

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People have become comfortable with talking to their smartphones and tasking these mini-computers to find the closest restaurants, schedule appointments, and even switch on their connected washing machines while they are stuck in traffic.

This is considerable progress from those expensive (and dated) robotic vacuum cleaners that drew some interest a few years ago. Yes, being able to automate cleaning the carpets held promise, but the reality failed to deliver on those expectations.

However, people’s growing comfort when it comes to talking to machines and letting them complete menial tasks is not what the long-anticipated Internet of Things (IoT) is about. It really entails taking connectedness a step further by getting machines to talk to one another in an increasingly digital world filled with smart cities, devices, and ways of doing things.

We have long been in the hype phase of IoT, but it is finally taking on a more concrete form illustrating its benefits to business and the public at large. The GSM Association predicts that Africa will account for nearly 60 percent of the anticipated 30 billion connected IoT devices by 2020.

Use cases across the continent hold much promise. In agriculture, for example, placing sensors in soil enable farmers to track acidity levels, temperature, and other variables to assist in improving crop yields. In some hotels, infrared sensors are being used to detect body heat so cleaning staff now when they can enter a room. In South Africa, connected cars (think telematics) are nothing new. Many local insurers use the data generated to reward good driver behaviour and penalise bad ones with higher premiums.

Data management

The proliferation of IoT also means huge opportunity for businesses. According to the IDC, the market opportunity for IoT in South Africa will grow to $1.7 billion by 2021. And with research from Statista showing that retail IoT spending in the country is expected to grow to $60 million by the end of this year (compared to the $41 million of 2016), there is significant potential for connected devices once organisations start to unlock the value of the data being generated.

But before we get a real sense of what our newly-connected world will look like and the full picture of the business opportunities IoT will create, we need to put the right resources in place to manage it. With IoT comes data, more than we can realistically imagine, and we are already creating more data than ever before.

Processing data is something usually left to ‘the IT person’. However, if business leaders want to join the IoT game, then it is something they must start thinking about. Sure, there are several ways to process data but they all link back to a data centre, that room or piece of equipment in the office, or the public data centre down the road. Most know it is there but little else, other than it has something to do with data and computers.

Data centres are the less interesting but very essential tools in all things technology. They run the show, and without them we would not be able to do something as simple as send an email, let alone create an intricate system of connected devices that constantly communicate with each other.

Traditionally, data centres have been large, expensive and clunky machines. But like everything in technology, they have been modernised over the years and have become smaller, more powerful, and more practical for the digital demands of today.

Computing on the edge

Imagine real-time face scanning being used at the Currie Cup final or the Chiefs and Pirates derby. Just imagine more than a thousand cameras in action, working in real time scanning tens of thousands of faces from different angles, creating data all along the way and integrating with other technology such as police radios and in-stadium services.

As South Africans, we know all too well that the bandwidth to process such a large amount of data through traditional networks is simply not good enough to work efficiently. And while it can be run through a large core or public data centre, the likelihood of one of those being close to the stadium is minimal. Delays, or ‘latency and lag time’, are not an option in this scenario; it must work in real time or not at all.

So, what can be done? The answer lies in edge computing. This is where computing is brought closer to the devices being used. The edge refers to devices that communicate with each other. Think of all those connected things the IoT has become known for: things like mobile devices, sensors, fitness trackers, laptops, and so on. Essentially anything that is ‘remote’ that links to the Web or other devices falls under this umbrella. For the most part, edge computing refers to smaller data centres (those in the edge) that can process the data required for things like large-scale facial recognition.

At some point in the future, there could be an edge data centre at Newlands or The Calabash that processes the data in real time. It would, of course, also be connected to other resources such as a public or private cloud environment, but the ‘heavy lifting’ is done where the action is taking place.

Unfortunately, there are not enough of these edge resources in place to match our grand IoT ambitions. Clearly, this must change if we are to continue much further down the IoT path.

Admittedly, edge computing is not the most exciting part of the IoT revolution, but it is perhaps the most necessary component of it if there is to be a revolution at all.

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Don’t panic! Future of work is still human

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The digital age, and the new technologies it’s brought with it – blockchain, artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, augmented reality and virtual reality – is seen by many as a threat to our way of life as we know it. What if my job gets automated? How will I stay relevant? How do we adapt to the need for new skills to manage customer expectations and the flood of data that’s washing over us?

The bad news is that the nature of work has already changed irrevocably. Everything that can be automated, will be. We already live in an age of “robot restaurants”, where you order on a touch screen, and machines cook and serve your food. Did you notice the difference? AmazonGo is providing shopping without checkout lines. In the US alone, there are an estimated 3.4 million drivers that could be replaced by self-driving vehicles in 10 years, including truck drivers, taxi drivers and bus drivers.

We’re not immune from this phenomenon in Africa. In fact, the World Economic Forum (WEF) predicts that 41% of all work activities in South Africa are susceptible to automation, compared to 44% in Ethiopia, 46% in Nigeria and 52% in Kenya. This doesn’t mean millions of jobs on the continent will be automated overnight, but it’s a clear indicator of the future direction we’re taking.

The good news is that we don’t need to panic. What’s important for us in South Africa, and the continent, is to realise that there is plenty of work that only humans can do. This is particularly relevant to the African context, as the working-age population rises to 600 million in 2030 from 370 million in 2010. We have a groundswell of young people who need jobs – and the digital age has the ability to provide them, if we start working now.

Make no mistake, there’s no doubt that this so-called “Fourth Industrial Revolution” is going to disrupt many occupations. This is perfectly natural: every Industrial Revolution has made some jobs redundant. At the same time, these Revolutions have created vast new opportunities that have taken us forward exponentially.

Between 2012 and 2017, for example, it’s estimated that the demand for data analysts globally grew by 372%, and the demand for data visualisation skills by more than 2000%. As businesses, this means we have to not only create new jobs in areas like data science and analytics, but reskill our existing workforces to deal with the digital revolution and its new demands.

So, while bus drivers and data clerks are looking over their shoulders nervously right now, we’re seeing a vast range of new jobs being created in fields such as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), data analysis, computer science and engineering.

This is a challenge for Sub-Saharan Africa, where our levels of STEM education are still not where they should be. That doesn’t mean there are no opportunities to be had. In the region, for example, we have a real opportunity to create a new generation of home-grown African digital creators, designers and makers, not just “digital deliverers”. People who understand African nuances and stories, and who not only speak local languages, but are fluent in digital.

This ability to bridge the digital and physical worlds, as it were, will be the new gold for Africa. We need more business operations data analysts, who combine deep knowledge of their industry with the latest analytical tools to adapt business strategies. There will also be more demand for user interface experts, who can facilitate seamless human-machine interaction.

Of course, in the longer term, we in Africa are going to have to make some fundamental decisions about how we educate people if we’re going to be a part of this brave new world. Governments, big business and civil society will all have roles to play in creating more future-ready education systems, including expanded access to early-childhood education, more skilled teachers, investments in digital fluency and ICT literacy skills, and providing robust technical and vocational education and training (TVET). This will take significant intent not only from a policy point of view, but also the financial means to fund this.

None of this will happen overnight. So what can we, as individuals and businesspeople, do in the meantime? A good start would be to realise that the old models of learning and work are broken. Jenny Dearborn, SAP’s Global Head of Learning, talks about how the old approach to learning and work was generally a three-stage life that consisted largely of learn-work-retire.

Today, we live in what Ms Dearborn calls the multi-stage life, which includes numerous phases of learn-work-change-learn-work. And where before, the learning was often by rote, because information was finite, learning now is all about critical thinking, complex problem-solving, creativity and innovation and even the ability to un-learn what you have learned before.

Helping instill this culture of lifelong learning, including the provision of adult training and upskilling infrastructure, is something that all companies can do, starting now. The research is clear: even if jobs are stable or growing, they are going through major changes to their skills profile. WEF’s Future of Jobs analysis found that, in South Africa alone, 39% of core skills required across all occupations will be different by 2020 compared to what was needed to perform those roles in 2015.

This is a huge wake-up call to companies to invest meaningfully in on-the-job training to keep their people – and themselves – relevant in this new digital age. There’s no doubt that more learning will need to take place in the workplace, and greater private sector involvement is needed. As employers, we have to start working closely with should therefore offer schools, universities and even non-formal education to provide learning opportunities to our workers.

We can also drive a far stronger focus on the so-called “soft skills”, which is often used as a slightly dismissive term in the workplace. The core skills needed in today’s workplace are active listening, speaking, and critical thinking. A quick look at the WEF’s “21st Century Skills Required For The Future Of Work” chart bears this out: as much as we need literacy, numeracy and IT skills to make sense of the modern world of work, we also need innately human skills like communication and collaboration. The good news is that not only can these be taught – but they can be taught within the work environment.

It sounds almost counter-intuitive, but to be successful in the Digital Age, businesses are going to have to go back to what has always made them strong: their people. Everyone can buy AI, build data warehouses, and automate every process in sight. The companies that will stand out will be those that that focus on the things that can’t be duplicated by AI or machine learning – uniquely human skills.

I have no doubt that the future will not be humans OR robots: it will be humans AND robots, working side by side. For us, as businesspeople and children of the African continent, we’re on the brink of a major opportunity. We just have to grasp it.

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