2013 Technology of the Year Award Winners

The best hardware, software, development tools, and cloud services of the year.

2013 Technology of the Year Awards

Chosen from all the products we reviewed, tested, worked with, explored, and relied on throughout the year, InfoWorld's Technology of the Year Award winners represent the best of the best for end users, developers, and IT pros. They're not just the best products we've seen, but the most innovative, timely, and fun. They're the ones we don't want to imagine living without. 

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The best hardware, software, and cloud services of the year 

Google Android “Jelly Bean”

Google’s Android “Jelly Bean” release represents the major advance on the mobile front in 2012, finally stepping out of the shadow of iOS and pioneering distinctive new capabilities for mobile users. Google deserves credit for reinventing the formerly me-too Android OS first in the  “Ice Cream Sandwich” 4.0, which brought widgets and notifications, and then in the 4.1 and 4.2 Jelly Bean follow-ups that brought multiuser accounts for tablets and face unlock. As a result, the battle of the mobile devices is now being fought on the level of meaningful differences and inventions. Samsung’s enhancements already show just what a strong platform for innovation the new Android can be.

-- Galen Gruman

Apple iPad Mini

The iPad Mini is a no-compromise media tablet. But unlike the competing Kindle Fire and Nexus 7, it’s also a no-compromise tablet, able to do whatever a full-size iPad can do. Even the screen resolution of the iPad Mini hasn’t changed, so all iPad apps work as-is. That simple decision is a big reason why the iPad Mini is so compelling: It’s a regular iPad, not some new fork with different UI specs. It’s instantly usable and requires no extra work by developers (though making some UI allowances for the smaller screen is a good idea). Knowing when to rework what you already have is a tricky, often counterintuitive decision. The iPad Mini proves the benefit of taking that risk.

-- Galen Gruman

Ubuntu

Ubuntu made Linux work out of the box on laptops, a market that other distros long ignored and sometimes derided. Now it has changed things up again with a radically simple new interface called Unity. The move has been very controversial, but non-technical users not only like it, but they can do it all themselves. Now Ubuntu is taking the Unity interface to smartphones and tablets. With Windows losing steam, a key opportunity is open for those of us who want to get work done without the need to look cool or hip or pay through the nose for a desktop platform. Ubuntu combines ease of use, rock solid stability, ease of administration, and a modern UI in one polished package.

-- Andrew Oliver

Google Drive

Google Drive makes Microsoft Office and SkyDrive feel like an IBM 360 mainframe. Free and accessible from any browser, Google Drive lets you create documents, spreadsheets, forms, and presentations; keep version history; share with any Googler; export to a dozen file types; or publish to the Web with specified permissions. On partly cloudy days, Drive has you covered with offline access through locally saved sessions that load in the browser and sync to the cloud when connectivity returns. If all of this is too straightforward, then try accessing your spreadsheets with the HTTP REST API for geeky CRUD and hipster cred. 

-- Andrew Oliver

LogMeIn Free, Pro, and Ignition

This remote access service for PCs comes in free and paid incarnations. The free version has enough good features to make it a replacement for the remote-desktop features recently dumped from Windows Live. Support for multiple desktops on the host, adjustable image quality (the default setting adjusts with bandwidth), and synchronized clipboards are all available. For a yearly fee, you can add remote file access, drag-and-drop file transfer, diagnostics and statistics, and higher-quality video. If you want to ditch the use of a browser, check out the stand-alone Ignition app. It even runs from a removable drive so you can securely access your desktop from any PC -- even one that's not yours.

-- Serdar Yegulalp

WordPress

WordPress is easy to get started with, it’s supported by just about every Web host in existence, and it can be far more than just a blogging platform, depending on your needs. The developer community has created a gigantic ecosystem of plug-ins, and the designer community has created a seemingly infinite variety of themes. Version 3.5 addresses a number of sore spots, making major improvements to the way images are uploaded and managed and also improving support for multiblog installations, to name just two. Anyone with an existing WordPress installation should upgrade. Anyone thinking about running his or her own install has never had a better time to start.

-- Serdar Yegulalp

Bootstrap

This Web framework, courtesy of a few smart apples over at Twitter, solves so many of the most common problems in Web design, and with such elegance and simplicity, that we pity any designer not familiar with it. Bootstrap uses a twelve-column layout, which automatically resizes based on the display device. Every common interface component, from drop-down menus to breadcrumb trails to styled buttons, are preprogrammed into the Bootstrap CSS and can be tweaked as needed with an additional style sheet. Best of all is the customizer, which lets you create and download a version of Bootstrap modified to your needs without you having to spelunk by hand through the style definitions.

-- Serdar Yegulalp

Microsoft Visual Studio 2012

Are you building a Web application? A database application? GUI development? Perhaps your application is graphics intensive? Or maybe you need help building a high-throughput parallel processing application? Visual Studio 2012 supports so many languages, frameworks, and target environments that you'll need a database to keep track of it all. It goes without saying that if you want to build an application for Windows -- particularly Windows 8 -- there is no substitute for Visual Studio. Oh, you might get by without it. But just barely, and you wouldn't be doing yourself any favors in the process.

-- Rick Grehan

Microsoft Windows Azure

One of the simplest ways to get a server full of Microsoft Windows today is to click through a few forms on the Windows Azure platform. Voilá, you've got a machine running Windows in the cloud. Azure offers full-featured Windows machines at rates that rival those for Linux instances on other clouds. If you want Linux, Java, Python, Node.js, or MySQL or NoSQL, they’re available too. Microsoft is tying Azure in with its other products with a level of integration that you just don't see in the cloud-only companies. Clearly Microsoft sees Azure as a crucial vector for delivering its platform in all of its various combinations.

-- Peter Wayner

CloudBees

The CloudBees Java PaaS goes the extra mile with dedicated servers for Jenkins-powered continuous integration and Git-powered version control. This integration erases a significant amount of overhead (read: time and money) right off the bat. CloudBees understands that the developer’s time is best spent on shippable code and not system administration or maintenance. CloudBees includes these supporting services, maintains them for the user, and seamlessly integrates them with all deployed code. It minimizes vendor lock-in through being compatible with industry standard Java EE servlets like Tomcat and JBoss, but it doesn’t require the developer to use proprietary APIs or Java libraries to deploy their apps.

-- Andrew Oliver

Joyent Cloud

All of the cloud merchants make the servers seem like a commodity. You log in, you click some buttons, and you've got root on a new machine. Sure, you can add more RAM, but other than that, a box is a box, right? Ah, it's trickier than that and Joyent Cloud is the proof. The company is selling a cloud machine, based on Solaris with some virtualization layer tweaks, that runs a bit faster than the others, something we found when we started running some basic tests. Not every one of our tests ran dramatically faster, but there were enough to make an impression.

-- Peter Wayner

Node.js

At the beginning, the idea behind Node.js seemed ludicrous. Who would want to trade all of the wonderful abstraction and programmer-liberating freedom of the thread model for all of the drudgery of making sure your code can't deadlock? Who would want to try to keep nesting methods inside of methods inside of other methods just because that's how JavaScript loves to toss them around? Programmers may debate these issues for years to come, but Node.js will continue to gain converts as long as it offers fast performance and a friendly syntax for everyone who grew up programming JavaScript.

-- Peter Wayner

Apache Hadoop

Combining a distributed file system and a MapReduce parallel processing framework, Hadoop has been a godsend for big data and unstructured data, where traditional SQL databases fail at the scale. Equally responsible for Hadoop’s success, however, is its flexible integration with existing databases and ridiculously useful query languages like Pig and the SQL-like Hive QL. These features have made Hadoop extremely popular, relatively speaking, in the enterprise market where FUD runs high and business intelligence can’t skip a beat. In today’s big data age when traditional relational databases aren’t fast enough or scalable enough for the money, the outlook remains bullish for this elephant.

-- Andrew Oliver

Apache Cassandra

Cassandra, the open source “big table” database, is fantastic for huge and simple data sets where scalability, reliability, and speed are the paramount concerns and JOINs and MapReduce are unnecessary. Key-value systems provide high speed only if the data set fits in memory, and this doesn’t include concerns of reliability. Although document databases like MongoDB and Couchbase Server have made great strides in partition tolerance, they’re optimized for a more structured form of data. For applications involving minimally structured data, distributed storage, and relatively high speed, Cassandra is a welcome alternative in the post-SQL world.

-- Andrew Oliver

Apache Lucene

If 2012 was the year of “big data,” 2013 may be the year of unstructured “dark data.” Without prescribed organization and relationships, it’s not clear how to identify connections, patterns, and meaning in raw data, or draw useful conclusions for business intelligence or life in general. Dark data demands that we do so anyway, and Lucene shines the light, searching and analyzes large volumes of text at extremely fast speeds. It understands wild cards, natural language grammar, and proximity queries (e.g. synonyms). Index searching is thread safe, leading to more efficient memory use and speed. This speed makes Lucene useful for searching fields of large relational databases regardless of their internal structure. Best of all, it’s open source and Apache licensed.

-- Andrew Oliver

Couchbase Server

Couchbase Server 2.0 is a tour de force of NoSQL and scalability. This now-officially-released database hybridizes the key-value store of Memcached with the high concurrency and persistence of the CouchDB document database. Automatic cluster management scales operations with truly balanced sharding, node rebalancing, and cross-data center replication for data localization. For disaster recovery and partition tolerance, Couchbase’s architecture rolls with the punches with on-the-fly detection of node imbalances and no master-slave relationships. Couchbase Server comes in two forms: a free, open source “community” version, and a subscription-based enterprise version. Rest assured it will continue to significantly shake up the document database landscape in 2013.

-- Andrew Oliver

Neo4j

When you think of NoSQL, you may think of a non-transactional, non-relational database. Graph databases like Neo4j are a bit of an odd man out in this category. When your data is structured but the relationships among the data are as important as the data itself, you may be better served by a graph database. Neo4j makes connections between data elements intrinsic to each element. For many types of systems, such as recommendation engines, social, scientific, and “friend of a friend” calculations, Neo4j is the right fit. If you're self-joining tables and walking down row by row, this is probably the answer you've been looking for.  

-- Andrew Oliver

Microsoft Windows Server 2012

The long list of new and updated features in Windows Server 2012 contains innovative capabilities ranging from commodity clustering to protocol plumbing (SMB 3.0) to versatile, large-scale virtualization (Hyper-V 3.0). A new Server Manager provides a single point to monitor and control any server within reach of your network. New and improved wizards make it possible for even the newbiest system administrator to accomplish complex tasks. Microsoft has provided all these new features plus massive increases in hardware support while reducing the base price of the OS from previous releases. It all adds up to a great piece of work.

-- Paul Ferrill

Microsoft Windows PowerShell

The third time is definitely the charm for PowerShell, which provides the engine behind the bulk of all management tools for Windows Server 2012. PowerShell 3.0 brings Windows Workflow Foundation support, time- and event-driven job scheduling, a much-improved Integrated Scripting Environment, and a remoting capability that's fully integrated with Active Directory permissions, making it possible for administrators to execute commands on any machine (Windows 7 or later) on the network. PowerShell boasts an active user community with forums and contributed “cmdlets” available for download from the Microsoft Script Center. If you're not already familiar with PowerShell, now is a great time to get started.

-- Paul Ferrill

VMware vSphere

There may be more real competition in virtualization than ever, but the rivals are still working in the wake of the industry’s first mover. As bread-and-butter virtualization features that were once solely within VMware’s domain have become available in other solutions, VMware has consistently pushed forward with new innovations. With vSphere 5.1, VMware takes the first coherent, integrated step toward a completely virtualized environment, from servers through storage and network. Significant enhancements to VXLAN, VMware’s network overlay technology, move the network segmentation, security, and load balancing tasks to the hypervisor, rather than external switches, firewalls, and load balancers. Thus VMware is bringing the configuration for the entire infrastructure within a single package, easing administration, automation, and disaster recovery.

-- Paul Venezia

VMware Workstation

Despite the freely available VirtualBox, you’ll find good reasons to spend the money on VMware Workstation. Version 9 of the world’s most polished desktop virtualization platform adds formal Windows 8 support, USB 3.0, improved graphics drivers (including OpenGL support for Linux guests), and even "nested virtualization," which enables such feats as running Hyper-V in a guest. Apart from VMware's best-in-class performance and organizational features, Workstation has been outfitted with such timesavers as task shortcuts and library search. My favorite feature: Unity Mode, which allows programs running on the guest to have their windows displayed on the host desktop.

-- Serdar Yegulalp

Veeam Backup and Replication

There aren’t many tasks that IT pros hate more than maintaining backups. For many, Veeam Backup and Replication has changed all of that. Veeam B&R’s superior reliability, well-developed user community, and wide feature set put solid virtual machine backups and lightning-fast restores within easy reach. Veeam B&R lets you run a restored VM directly from the backup server or appliance and then migrate it back to your primary storage while it’s still running -- all without having to wait for the data to copy before you can get users back to work. Better yet, you can use this same feature to automatically test every backup you do. 

-- Matt Prigge

Dell PowerEdge M1000e blade system

It was not so long ago that Dell’s blade offerings were slim and unexciting. In two short years, Dell has accomplished a full 180. Today’s PowerEdge M1000e blade system is a remarkably complete and refined blade solution that incorporates many new ideas and innovations. On top of Intel- and AMD-based blades, two- and four-socket blades, high-density two-socket quarter-height blades, and even blades with PCIe slots for specialized purposes, there’s the “Colossus,” a two-blade-wide iSCSI array that boasts redundant controllers and up to 14 SAS and SSD drives. Best of all, it's a true EqualLogic SAN, providing all the same capabilities -- automated tiering, replication, and so on -- as Dell's best-in-class full-size arrays.

-- Paul Venezia

Dell PowerEdge C6220

A shining example of the new breed of high density, no-frills server, the Dell PowerEdge C6220 is a 2RU system that supports asymmetrically configured compute nodes (four nodes, each with one or two six-core CPUs) and asymmetrically allocated drives (up to 24 2.5-inch drives across the front). With each node having its own out-of-band, IPMI remote console with chassis power management, this compact system gives you great flexibility in a tiny amount of space. Originally available as a Dell custom white box solution, this configuration became so popular that Dell brought it out of custom world as a standard line item.

-- Brian Chee

Dell EqualLogic PS6110XS iSCSI SAN

Dell’s EqualLogic SAN arrays have long delivered iSCSI storage in a fast, reliable manner. The PS6110XS does that and then some. The PS6110XS drives a hybrid disk set, up to seven SSDs and 17 SAS drives for a total of 24 disks, with redundant controllers offering 10G Ethernet connectivity via two 10G interfaces per controller. In addition to the plentiful I/O, the PS6110XS can leverage automated storage tiering features that allow the system to automatically place highly used blocks of data on the fastest disks. Thus with no administrator involvement, applications that require heavy storage I/O can actually get faster the longer they run -- and continue to remain fast even as the workload changes over time.

-- Paul Venezia

QNAP TS-EC1279U-RP

The QNAP TS-EC1279U-RP rack-mount IP SAN and NAS boasts dual 10G Ethernet interfaces alongside 1G copper interfaces, redundant power supplies, and 36TB raw capacity with 3TB SATA drives. It speaks just about every file sharing protocol under the sun, ties in with Microsoft Active Directory and LDAP for authentication, and supports VMware vSphere, Citrix XenServer, and Windows and Hyper-V failover clustering. It can even handle real-time and block-level replication with encryption and compression. For the small-to-medium workload, that’s plenty of bang for a street price under $5K (without disk).

-- Paul Venezia

ExaGrid EX Series

Although data deduplication has become fairly common, not all backup appliances are created equal; the real trick is providing seamless scalability and offsite replication capabilities. ExaGrid’s scale-out architecture guarantees that even as your data grows, your backup windows won’t. Each of the seven available models offers a balanced blend of performance and capacity, and they can combine together into a single grid that spreads deduplicated data evenly across all grid members. This unique scale-out grid architecture -- and a truly refreshing dedicated support model -- sets ExaGrid apart from the pack and into a class of its own.

-- Matt Prigge

Riverbed Steelhead

Riverbed's Steelhead WAN optimization and acceleration appliance continues to grow, morph, and mature with each new release. Steelhead with RiOS 7 takes a good thing farther by adding support for UDP traffic, one of the only areas where Riverbed trailed its competitors. And let’s not forget improved optimizations for Citrix ICA traffic (including secure ICA), a fully implemented IPv6 stack, and end-to-end Kerberos support for secure communications. Finally, one of the coolest new features is the HTTP video stream splitting, which can reduce multiple video stream requests into a single stream over the WAN. So when the CEO is giving a talk to 100 remote users, only one stream is required instead of 100. Talk about bandwidth reduction!

-- Keith Schultz

Riverbed Granite

Run servers in the branch office while keeping their storage in the data center? That’s the magic of Riverbed Granite, a groundbreaking technology that “projects” iSCSI storage volumes located in the data center out to a hypervisor running in a remote site. To the hypervisor, the volume appears as locally accessible storage. Riverbed uses some special juju to accelerate VMFS and NTFS over the WAN, making it possible to boot a virtual server from a file system at the other end of the link. The net result: The branch office can have its server, while the data remains under central IT control. And no more remote backups!

-- Keith Schultz

OpenRemote

An open source platform for residential and commercial building automation, OpenRemote works with off-the-shelf hardware and allows users to integrate any device or protocol, design their own user interfaces, and automate systems to create intelligent buildings. The software runs on Windows, Linux, Mac, Raspberry Pi, and specialized automation platforms, and it scales from one-room media centers up to large commercial installations. In a traditionally proprietary market, OpenRemote brings the house of the future to the “rest of us.” But far from just solving your “first world problem” of wanting to control your lights with your Android or iPhone, this is the stuff of a greener and more accessible future.

-- Andrew Oliver