Until recently, disruption in IT meant something very different than sending everybody home to work for a year. But the COVID-19 pandemic has shaken up the technology landscape, stalling some approaches and systems, while speeding the adoption of others.
In our recent State of the CIO survey, tech leaders placed AI and machine learning at the top of their list of technologies most likely to significantly impact how businesses operate in 2021. IT leaders also see big data and analytics having a distinct impact, along with less widely adopted technologies such as blockchain.
We reached out to IT leaders and industry analysts to get their take on which technologies pose the most disruptive potential in 2021, with some offering perspective on which technologies might be in favor as the pandemic subsides.
AI and machine learning
The near ubiquity of artificial intelligence across industries is helping businesses make decisions and increasing convenience for customers, but it’s been accompanied by growing pains. While 62% of IT leaders surveyed in our State of the CIO report see AI as a key disrupter in 2021, Michael Ringman, CIO of Telus International, shares a widely held view that AI requires intentional ethical practices during development, to avoid biases. And he suggests an approach that isn’t just silicon-based.
“Organizations should consider a human-in-the-loop approach,” he says. “It’s a form of active learning that takes a semi-supervised approach to machine learning. This allows an AI model to be continuously monitored and improved by human experts who can tackle edge cases and provide insightful feedback into the loop.”
Diveplane CIO Will Goddin agrees that in 2021 we’ll see an emphasis placed on ethical AI practices, including methods to protect privacy such as AI-produced synthetic data.
“The growing use of data in just about every aspect of business increases vulnerability, making way for the increased use of privacy-enhancing technologies,” Goddin says.
Created by AI, synthetic data sets “produce an identical set of data with the same statistical properties as the original that can be shared without revealing any personal identifying information,” he says.
Big data and analytics
As with AI, in 2021 there will be opportunities for data science to improve business — and do good, says Datamaran CTO Jerome Basdevant. Big data and analytics pulled in at No. 2 in our survey of IT leaders, with 32% seeing disruptive potential in 2021.
“By applying big data analytics … we can capture more meaningful insights into business-critical risks and opportunities,” Basdevant says. But he also sees ways the technology can encourage sustainability. “Leveraging big data analytic methods has helped to transform the way we think about sustainability and [environmental, social, and governance] issues, just as it has transformed the way we think about business generally.”
Matt Stevens, CEO of AppNeta, thinks 2021 will see the distributed approach that’s affected many areas of technology applied to gaining insights from data.
“Enterprises need to shake the idea that data needs to be shifted and lifted to a centralized location quickly, as the entire premise that data needs to be centralized is flat-out impractical. Data environments need to leverage the significant value of data left in its natural and native location,” he says. “With the success of big data projects dwindling within the enterprise over the past few years, teams must start leveraging next-generation platforms — like SnowFlake and Starburst — that are designed to operate at scale in a distributed, cloud-first manner to start reversing this trend.”
Nearly one in five IT leaders survey for our State of the CIO report see 5G as a disruptor in 2021, but Jason Shepherd, vice president of ecosystem at Zededa, sees 5G more as a solution looking for a problem, despite practical applications that can help organizations now.
“A major driver of 5G is the telcos aggressively building out networks and marketing in the hopes of generating more revenue,” Shepherd says. “As with any major technology shift, applications that capitalize on the benefits need to catch up before it’s truly valuable.”
For 2021, he sees more promise for private 5G networks. “The hyper-local and highly dense last mile of 5G is a great match for localized services,” he said. “In 2021, we’ll see private 5G increasingly being used for mission-critical applications and in situations where a high degree of mobility is required.”
Shepherd says the buzz around blockchain for business has subsided somewhat for several reasons, though building trust around data and applications among stakeholders could help. Still, 24% of IT leaders see blockchain’s potential for disruption in 2021, according to our State of the CIO survey.
To shore up trust in enterprise blockchain, Shepherd cites concerns around “fear of exposure, necessary compute power for public chains, a lack of clear standards –– for example Ethereum, Hyperledger, IOTA — and the fact blockchain only keeps track of smart contracts but not the quality of the data itself.”
In this area, Shepherd sees a need for trust fabrics, which can boost confidence in data delivered between different systems: “Industry efforts include the Linux Foundation’s Trust over IP effort and emerging Project Alvarium will also help ease the process of transporting trusted data from devices to applications.”
Cloud and SaaS
The pandemic has cemented the importance of the cloud in IT strategies, making the practice of consuming computing resources over the internet business as usual for most organizations. Still, 21% of IT leaders see the cloud as a potential disruptor in 2021, and increasingly application makers that were previously focused on local solutions are getting in on the act, says Mani Sundaram, CIO and executive vice president of Global Services at Akamai.
“This will be a year where companies continue to move their on-premises applications to the cloud,” Sundaram says. “Legacy on-premise software companies, after years of being battered by born-in-the-cloud SaaS companies, are fighting back with newer and shinier cloud software that are mostly through acquisitions. These companies are offering incentives to IT organizations to migrate to the cloud, and it’s likely that we will see this trend intensifying in 2021.”
Much of the workforce will still be working remotely in 2021, prompting security and management concerns.
“Distributed workforces were already on an upward trajectory but have been completely kicked into overdrive with the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Danny Allan, chief technology officer at Veeam. “With many companies extending work-at-home opportunities through mid-next year, reliance on cloud-based collaboration platforms will only increase. This means even more teams will be looking to harness the power of the cloud to store an influx of data from collaboration platforms. In 2021, this will create more focus, awareness, and need for data protection and management for collaboration software.”
DigitalOcean CTO Barry Cooks projects this year we’ll see some organizations that are reliant on cloud operations shift priorities to site reliability engineering to address issues around the DevOps model.
“One of the challenges in DevOps is the tradeoff between time spent on operations activities and core development activities,” Cooks says. “The site reliability engineering model has largely helped to fill in these gaps by helping with operational activities, while still holding engineering teams accountable for the overall quality and debuggability of their code.”
One in six IT leaders sees upside for drones in 2021, according to our survey, and Pulki Jaiswal, co-founder of NWO.ai, sees a trend in expanding drone capabilities beyond the pilot’s line of sight, enabling commercial drones to fly far greater distances, for use by government, agriculture, and construction, for example, where inspections over great distances are desirable.
“Beyond visual line of sight is the most talked about thing in the drone industry,” Jaiswal says. “Countries around the world are amending their drone policies so that they can allow unmanned aerial vehicles to beyond visual line of site for maximum efficiency.”
Drones will also start taking advantage of robotic process automation in 2021, says Melanie Nuce, senior vice president of corporate development at GS1 US.
‘‘RPA, valued in the industrial world for its operational efficiency and cost savings, will no longer just be for the factory floor,” Nuce says. “With consumers reluctant to shop in person, retail industry stakeholders, for example, are working together to speed up the application of RPA for the store and for delivery.”
With digital business taking center stage during the pandemic, and customer experience becoming a key differentiator for businesses, digital assistants are finally getting their due. But the push for chatbots and similar technologies in 2021 won’t only be for customer service, as Zededa’s Shepherd expects more use cases to appear in business, including tools to help those working from home.
“Algorithms and use cases will continue to proliferate, include new tools to improve productivity for home workers, as well as better delineate between work and personal time,” he says.
He also expects to see more demand around data privacy from smart device providers. “The massive amount of data being amassed by the clouds due to smart speakers and digital assistants is creating an issue with data gravity. Fear over this will prompt increasing interest in open speech/AI solutions to abstract the data analytics and personal data from the cloud scalers,” he says.
Several of the IT pros we talked with predicted an increased demand for wearable electronics, spurred by the pandemic and businesses looking to increase workplace safety. Twelve percent of IT leaders agree that wearables are primed to have a disruptive impact.
“However, trust and privacy will be a roadblock to mass adoption,” Shepherd says. “It also requires looking at the intersection here between safety, which is paramount, and other key stakeholders in the ecosystem, including insurance carriers which typically have the most to lose.”
Serverless computing, while early in its adoption, will continue to speed delivery of code for new projects in 2021, says Zeev Avidan, chief product officer of OpenLegacy.
“Developers and organizations enjoy the benefit of focusing on the specific business functionality they are looking to deliver for their customers,” Avidan says, “while leaving everything else — infrastructure, configurations, security, scalability — to the cloud vendors to worry about.”
He thinks these benefits are part of the overarching trend toward simpler, faster, agile software development. And they may also be able to benefit legacy systems in the future.
“A key moment in its maturation towards a fully adopted enterprise solution would be in handling hybrid scenarios,” he says. “The different nature of this technology might require new ways of thinking about enterprise and legacy integration in a hybrid context, but once that happens, the road will clear for serverless to enable organizations large and small to deliver software at a never-before-possible velocity.”