TL;DR: The technology trends dominating 2021 concentrate on security and enabling seamless experiences across remote environments. Some promising technologies are also expected to realize their potential in the months to come.
Companies spent much of the last year engaging in digital transformation and adapting to the new normal. Even after the battle against the coronavirus is won, it's safe to say that things will never be the same again. Going forward, the next few months will focus on the current transition and the next normal.
When it comes to IT, enterprises will accelerate the development of new digital capabilities and functionality. This approach will help build resilience and keep pace with rapidly evolving technology trends in a post-pandemic world.
From AI to security to 5G, the future is now! This year, these technology trends have a running theme of security. In this article, we will explore some of the most important IT trends we should know about.
1. Zero Trust
In the current threat landscape, everybody is a live target. As threat actors increasingly initiate sophisticated cyberattacks, rapidly evolving enterprise environments are under threat like never before. This makes it vital to never trust anything and verify everything.
Zero trust is based on the idea that modern IT environments demand a different approach to security. There's no longer a clearly defined perimeter of trust where every user, device (laptop, mobile device, or IoT), and workload freely operate.
Instead, zero trust architectures validate each access request based on multiple data points. These include devices, location, identity, and other variables that provide context to every connection. As the Internet of Things or IoT grows exponentially, it'll be critical to secure it properly.
This approach also allows more nuanced risk-based decision-making. It's a safer approach to enterprise security as applications, data, workloads, and other resources will be perceived as individual manageable units. By doing this, it's easier to contain breaches. Even while engaging in remote work, access should always depend on the principle of least privilege.
This year, we'll see the establishment of automation and engineering protocols to help properly implement zero trust security architectures. This will enable modern enterprise environments, simplify security management, and enhance enterprise security posture.
However, small and medium-sized businesses that use managed services don't have to worry about it. Their provider will already have zero trust protocols in place. Those who do it themselves on-premises must plan extensively. They must also automate manual business processes, prepare for transformational changes, and address foundational security issues.
2. Cybersecurity Mesh
The COVID-19 pandemic and the rush to enable remote work created countless opportunities for threat actors. Humans have always been the weakest link, and now they were at home working on often unsecured networks and devices.
In 2021, not much has changed. Ransomware continues to infect enterprises with weak security postures. This often turns into data breaches. To stay safe, businesses must reimagine their IT security strategy and invest in security and awareness programs.
One way to do this is through a cybersecurity mesh. A cybersecurity mesh is essentially a distributed architectural approach to enable flexible, scalable, and reliable security control. In this scenario, many assets live outside the traditional security perimeter.
The cybersecurity mesh allows security teams to define the perimeter around the identity of a user or a device. Once defined, a centralized policy orchestration and distribution enforcement protocols will manage it.
As the traditional perimeter approach grows meaningless, a more modular and responsive system is necessary to ensure security, privacy, and compliance. However, security awareness training programs must complement these initiatives to make a real difference in the coming year.
3. Anywhere Operations
Let's face it. The pandemic showed the world that we could perform most tasks from just about anywhere. So, don't expect everyone to come back to the office. As such, businesses must adopt an operating model that helps work get done efficiently from anywhere.
It's important to have a secure environment that's accessed, delivered, and enabled from anywhere as your customers and business partners will also engage with you from physically remote environments.
SMBs following traditional operational models must switch to a digital-first approach. The more you can handle without any physical interaction, the better.
In the next normal, you should always be digital by default. This is not to say that physical spaces unimportant, but to digitize whatever you can to ensure seamless operations. This is made possible by new technologies and emerging technologies.
4. Distributed Cloud
The future of the cloud is distributed. A distributed cloud is a cloud computing service or model that enables businesses to run public cloud infrastructures and services across multiple locations. These include private data centers, different cloud companies (like Amazon and Microsoft Azure), edge computing locations, third-party data centers, and just about anywhere.
However, while cloud infrastructure is distributed, cloud evolution, governance, and operations remain the same (or the responsibility of the managed services provider). This approach helps companies achieve low latency by having services closer to their physical locations.
Distributed cloud services also help cut big data costs and accommodate some local laws requiring data storage in a specific geographical area. This approach helps ensure that enterprises continue to benefit from public clouds that are cheaper and less complex than having their own private cloud or data center.
5. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Engineering
Artificial intelligence has been around for decades. But we haven't reaped its benefits until now. Yes, 2021 is the year that Skynet becomes a reality!
Today, advanced AI and machine learning (ML) models enable enterprises to identify patterns and anomalies to make better predictions and smarter decisions. Operational insights are also a key driver of organizational performance.
As more businesses realize the value of engineered performance, smart algorithms, and effective machine learning models, we will realize the next level of productivity and operational efficiency.
However, many of us (including startups and established enterprises) must contend with clunky development and deployment processes that stifle experimentation. For the best results, it's vital to find a way to realize enhanced collaboration between data science, operations, and production teams.
As AI and ML evolve and mature, robust engineering and operational discipline will help organizations overcome potential obstacles. However, to realize the transformative benefits of these technologies, we must usher in an era of MLOps (or ML CI/CD, ModelOps, and ML DevOps).
MLOps is all about applying DevOps methodologies and tools to model development and deployment scenarios to industrialize and scale machine learning initiatives. But there's one problem. Current data models and infrastructure assist decision-making by humans, not machines. In response, businesses will take steps to disrupt the data management value and supply chain from end to end.
Some AI engineering trends to look out for:
- AI-powered security
- Increased prevalence of AI in healthcare and marketing
- Voice and language-driven AI
6. Identity Access Management (IAM)
It's safe to say that 2021 is the year of IAM. According to Fortune Business Insights and MarketsandMarkets, the global market for IAM will almost double from $12.3 billion in 2020 to over $24 billion by 2025.
While the industry expects to grow by about 15% more this year, the value of the IAM sector could increase by 65% over the next four years. This is because many corporations and SMBs now depend on IAM to verify user identities, evaluate access privileges (to protect sensitive enterprise and personal data), and improve the organization's overall security posture.
When you grant access to technologies and resources to people, devices (including IoT), and other assets, it'll quickly become challenging to manage. As such, companies must take steps to standardize and automate their identity life cycle management processes.
Automating can also help extend operational boundaries beyond traditional systems while protecting and maintaining critical resources. This is achieved by moving their identity stack and computation processes to the cloud. So, you can expect to see identity-as-a-service offerings or the implementation of advanced authentication methods like behavioral monitoring, conditional access, and physical biometrics in the coming year.
7. Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)
MFA has been around for many years and applied across different use cases. But MFA truly gained a lot of momentum in 2020 when remote work quickly became the norm. By requiring users to prove their identity in two or more ways, businesses can better secure accounts, applications, systems, and of course, sensitive information.
In this scenario, users must provide a second authentication factor after inputting their username and password. Some popular examples of authentication factors include one-time passcodes (OTPs), software tokens, hardware tokens (like keycards and thumb drives), and mobile push from a software application to a mobile device.
By leveraging MFA tools, businesses help prevent data loss, internal theft, and external access from unauthorized users.
8. 5G with Robust Connectivity and Automation
We have been reading about the promise of 5G connectivity for a while, and it's now almost here. Each advance since 3G created new use cases for the internet and mobile connectivity, 5G is about to make many more.
For example, 3G made data-driven services possible and web browsing seamless on mobile devices. 4G enabled video streaming and an explosion of music platforms. As such, 5G will kick open the doors of new possibilities.
5G will catapult advanced technologies like augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). It will also accelerate the growth of cloud-based gaming, creating new opportunities for the industry.
At the same time, 5G also threatens to eliminate the need for us to tether and remain static near a particular location. So, cable and fiber-based networks will probably become redundant within the next couple of years.
5G and other advanced high-speed networks make some of the other technology trends on this list possible and available anytime from anywhere. For example, complex ML applications that rely on real-time data sources (for data analytics) are now available in the field via automation.
For example, Norwegian fishery operator Salmar already uses a 5G network to automate processes like feeding fish and caring for them. With the help of image recognition algorithms, Salmar identifies which fish are over or under-fed. Then it automatically dispenses food and medicines as needed. Initiatives like this will be the norm as companies attempt to automate anything and everything.
9. Extended Reality (XR)
AR and VR both leverage glasses and headsets to project computer-generated imagery into our field of vision. When superimposed over the real world, it's augmented reality. When it's a totally computer-generated environment, it's virtual reality.
XR is the new umbrella term for the combination of these immersive technologies. These include AR, VR, and mixed reality (MR) that hasn't been created (yet). The inspiration for the term comes from the fact that all these tools help "extend" the reality we experience.
We can expect to see XR technologies used in conjunction with others to solve problems in the real world. For example, they can help us avoid potentially dangerous situations like conducting medical examinations and diagnosing highly infectious diseases (by performing them remotely).
For example, VR can already be used to successfully conduct eye examinations. Patients can get their eyes tested and then select a pair of glasses or contact lens as needed, without ever leaving the comfort of their living room.
We can also expect to see more AR and VR tools used in education. For example, if XR were omnipresent in 2020, remote schooling would have been a different experience. At the same time, businesses can also use AR tools like smart glasses to communicate real-time warnings, especially during a pandemic in areas where infections spread rapidly.
Companies can also use these tools to ensure that people follow best practices like washing their hands, maintain social distancing, and so on.
10. Total User Experience
Hybrid workforces demand technologies to serve them as a tool. Total experiences combine customer experience, user experience, and employee experience into multi-experiences that transform business outcomes.
The goal of total experience is to enhance the overall experience where all these pieces intersect. Whether it's your employees, customers, or users, technology should serve all of them and enhance their experiences.
Instead of individually improving each one in a silo, tightly linking all of these experiences helps differentiate your business from competitors. The primary benefit here is that it's difficult to replicate, creating a sustainable advantage for your brand.
If you have moved all your operations online, it's vital to deliver total experiences to your remote workforce and mobile, virtual, and distributed customers. For example, if you're a company that shifted its business model online for safety reasons, you could do something like this.
If customers want the option of picking up their orders, first deploy an appointment system through your website or mobile app. When customers arrive, they receive a notification guide to the check-in process via SMS or mobile notification. Then a message about how long it would take before you can safely enter the premises is received.
Employees working at the store can use digital kiosks and tablets to co-browse with customers and solve any potential problems without physically touching the customer's device. This creates a safer, integrated, and seamless experience for all.
While these tech trends will probably dominate the industry in the months to come, success depends on your people. Companies need strong DevOps teams and developers with the necessary skillsets to make the most of these tools.
While security remains a dominant theme this year, and it'll probably continue to maintain its place at the top until data breaches are a rare occurrence. Again, technology won't be enough to secure your enterprise infrastructure properly. You'll need people who know how to use it and train others to follow best practices.