The InfoWorld Test Center picks the year's best and most innovative hardware and software for business and professionals
If you caught "InfoWorld's top 10 emerging enterprise technologies" in November, you had a running head start on our 2010 Technology of the Year Awards. MapReduce, desktop virtualization, I/O virtualization, NoSQL databases, cross-platform mobile application development, and application whitelisting topped our list of high-impact technologies, and not surprisingly, all are represented in our list of top products as well.
Other product categories yielding 2010 Technology of the Year Award winners include CPUs, blade servers, server virtualization, SANs, development tools, cloud services, social networking software, and smartphones. Some of the picks were no brainers, such as Intel's amazing Nehalem processor and Cisco's revolutionary Unified Computing System; others required careful consideration and even debate.
[ Take a quick slideshow tour of InfoWorld's 2010 Technology of the Year Award winners. Read about InfoWorld's top 10 emerging enterprise technologies. ]
Our most difficult dilemma was between Mac OS X Snow Leopard and Windows 7. Mac OS X was not only our reigning champ, but Snow Leopard edged Windows 7 in our PC vs. Mac death match. We also recognize that Snow Leopard, a wholly 64-bit Intel-based OS that finally sheds the baggage of Apple's PowerPC days, is the culmination of an extremely well executed transformation of Mac OS X. But for its dramatic and sorely needed improvement over Windows Vista, Windows 7 wins our award.
Read on to discover the rest of the year's winners (including a special nod to venerable Windows XP) and our reasoning behind the choices.
Intel Nehalem Processor (Xeon 5500 Series) The usual progression of processor performance dictates that we enjoy a new generation of chips every couple of years. Attaching the term "generation" to this biannual ritual of incremental feature additions has robbed the term of its importance as the marker of a new epoch. Instead, users have had to settle for hard-to-perceive performance benefits as processors excitedly moved from single to dual to quad core.
Then, suddenly this year, Intel upended the apple cart by releasing Nehalem, a chip so vastly different from its predecessors that it might honestly mark not just a new generation but the beginning of a whole new era in the storied history of the x86 processor.
Not only did Nehalem deliver the key technology advantages that AMD had been touting for years in its Opteron processors -- namely, its memory management -- but it broke new ground in power consumption and performance balancing, and it did so in dramatic fashion.
Nehalem is the first x86 processor to have multiple cores and multiple threads within those cores. If you like parallel, Nehalem gives you eight pipelines per chip. And unlike some RISC architectures that have multithreaded cores, these pipelines are capable of heavy work.
If parallel isn't of interest, Intel gives you Turbo Boost mode that enables the clock of operating cores to be increased within the thermal constraints of the chip. If other cores are quiescent, the remaining cores can be boosted by as much as 11 bin speeds, meaning 11-step increments, which gooses a sub-3GHz processor well past that threshold.
To enable maximum data access, Intel expanded cache to a three-level system and let cores share the capacious level-3 (L3) cache. If few cores are running, they each get more cache. Furthmore, Nehalem adds faster access to memory and access to faster memory -- all this with lower power consumption than its forebears.
Nehalem's performance improvement was clear from the start, and it has shown up dramatically in InfoWorld's benchmarks and reviews. Year-over-year performance nearly doubled in our workstation comparisons; our tests of Nehalem-based tower servers produced similarly impressive results. This is easily the best performance gain in a decade between releases of a processor. Add the diminished power requirement and Nehalem is a shoo-in for Technology of the Year.
-- Andrew Binstock
Microsoft Windows 7 No one can doubt that Microsoft's credentials as a designer of good operating systems took a beating when the company released Windows Vista in late 2006. After months of hyping the new OS, the Redmond giant shipped a product with demanding hardware requirements, a poorly considered security policy, and unimpressive eye candy. In addition, the company changed numerous features for seemingly little gain. Market response was quick and unforgiving. The tide of negative press so attached itself to the Vista moniker that when Microsoft released a service pack that did away with most users' complaints, nobody cared. It was too late to make a good impression.
With Windows 7, Microsoft made none of its previous mistakes. There was no oversell prior to release. And when the product arrived this year, users were pleasantly surprised. The company had taken the best of its Vista experience, tweaked it in small but important ways, and released the OS under a new name. Suddenly, consumers and enterprises were paying attention and recognizing that the only major operating system not directly derived from Unix had a lot to say for itself.
Windows 7 is responsive. Its kernel -- an accelerated version of the Vista kernel -- runs rings around Windows XP in graphics benchmarks, if not all tests that duplicate user application activity. To this has been added better exploitation of hardware so that power consumption is significantly less than Vista, while performance in multimedia has improved. Boot-up and shutdown time -- a bane of XP users -- is significantly shorter, and the inherent functionality of the OS has increased via a redesigned Windows shell, built-in virtualization, and support for a wide range of new devices.
Microsoft was able to deliver the new features without breaking backward compatibility with Vista. Vista device drivers mostly run without difficulty, and the 64-bit versions of the OS are no longer forlorn stepchildren but rather an integrated part of the Windows 7 family.
The nature of these changes might seem incremental in absolute terms, but their combined effect cannot be denied: According to Wikipedia, Windows 7 was the highest-grossing pre-order in the history of Amazon.com. Press and analyst reviews have been largely glowing, and adoption has been rapid -- the OS reached in three weeks the market penetration Vista attained after a long seven months. Windows 7 gets Windows right and once again Microsoft is an important innovator in the PC user experience.
-- Andrew Binstock
Microsoft Windows XP: A Lifetime Achievement Award Windows XP is the most successful operating system in history. It has shipped on more than a billion PCs worldwide and has spawned a supporting hardware and software ecosystem that is the envy of Microsoft's competitors. It truly is an epic product that touches every corner of the information technology industry.
XP's rise to dominance was not devoid of controversy. Early releases were buggy and prone to crashing, with many vendors struggling to transition device drivers and other system software from DOS-based Windows 9x to the NT-based Windows XP. Later editions were plagued by security exploits, giving the OS a reputation as malware's favorite target and forcing Microsoft to divert resources from XP's successor to fix the existing version's myriad flaws.
Yet despite its many shortcomings, Windows XP continued to expand its sphere of influence to a point where its "crayons and watercolor" Luna interface became synonymous with personal computing. In fact, XP became so popular that when Microsoft tried to replace it with the fatter, even buggier Windows Vista, customers revolted. They signed petitions demanding that Microsoft save XP, and used their downgrade rights to express their dissatisfaction.
Ultimately, this very public backlash forced Microsoft to rework Vista, pruning the excess fat and making it more palatable to the XP fence-sitters. The net result, Windows 7, is now shaping up to be the XP successor that many customers had hoped for. And for those of us who've successfully made the jump to Windows 7 (and loving it), we have the much maligned -- yet seemingly omnipresent -- XP to thank for paving the way.
-- Randall C. Kennedy
Cisco Unified Computing System Cisco unleashed the Cisco Unified Computing System (UCS) in March, and most of the world scratched their heads and asked what all the fuss was about. If there's anything lacking about UCS it's the fact that it's hard to communicate to most folks exactly how different it is from every other computing platform available today.
UCS combines the fluidity and malleability of Cisco's legendary modular switches with an extremely well-architected core management framework and an extremely usable GUI, then backs it up with solid Intel Nehalem-based blades with staggeringly high maximum RAM support.
Unlike the traditional model, UCS dispenses with fixed ports and internal switching. It removes the smarts from the chassis as well. Each chassis is essentially just sheet metal and a backplane. No switching occurs within a chassis; the chassis is simply an extension of the UCS fabric, which is driven by two redundant Fabric Interconnects.
The scalability of UCS has to be seen -- and understood -- to be believed. By addressing computing resources exactly as they address switching blades in a core switch, Cisco has ensured that capacity is always available and made it hot swappable. By leveraging 10G copper throughout, Cisco significantly reduced complexity and cabling costs.
Management is also greatly simplified. Instead of server-based management components or external packages, everything is driven from the Fabric Interconnects themselves. The entire configuration for any UCS implementation is a single XML file, and the XML API available with UCS makes custom scripting a breeze.
Cisco UCS is an extremely good idea, implemented extremely well, especially for a version 1.0 hardware platform. If Cisco can spread the good word about UCS next year, it should really take off. It's a paradigm shift in datacenter infrastructure whose time has come.
-- Paul Venezia
VMware vSphere 4 The leader in x86 virtualization continued to improve its juggernaut in 2009, adding features and capabilities that again set the standard for competitors. The April VMware vSphere 4 release touched on almost every aspect of managing a virtual infrastructure, from ESX host provisioning to virtual network management to backup and recovery of virtual machines. Thanks to features such as VM clustering, agentless VM backup, hot additions of CPUs and RAM, and vApps, which are collections of VMs that comprise specific applications, VMware vSphere takes a substantial step forward in the management of virtual environments.
For instance, a vApp might have a database server and several front-end Web servers that can be addressed and administered as a single entity. Another big addition is the new fault tolerance method that allows for a single VM to run in lockstep across two hosts, with only one VM in production. If that should fail, the passive VM is immediately put into service without missing a beat. There's also the ability to run VMs with 256GB of RAM and eight vCPUs, and map PCI devices directly to a VM. The management tools have also been improved to a degree, with better reporting and trending features.
These and other enterprise features show that VMware is in fact leaps and bounds ahead of competitors in this market, even though a few of them pretend to be nipping at VMware's heels. Not to say there won't be challenges ahead for VMware as the virtualization market continues to grow and mature -- the competition is large, and it isn't going away. Luckily, that's a benefit to us all.
-- Paul Venezia
Citrix XenDesktop 4 The taming of the corporate desktop is arguably one of the industry's failures over the past decade. No matter how many strides are made in the datacenter, the user experience is largely unchanged: Most companies are still running Windows XP on a local desktop. Citrix XenApp (formerly Presentation Server, formerly MetaFrame) and terminal services in general have been around for seeming eons, but in general-purpose deployments, there were always pitfalls and corner cases that made full-scale adoption problematic, if not impossible.
For some use cases such as call centers and data entry, Citrix has always been an excellent solution, but that's of small comfort to a corporation trying to control costs and reduce complexity by using thin clients on every desktop, regardless of the users' application requirements and workload. Pity the poor user who needs more.
After acquiring XenSource in 2007, Citrix pushed forward with a three-pronged approach to this problem. By leveraging their tried-and-true application virtualization technology alongside application streaming and finally virtual desktop infrastructure, they can now claim to cover all the bases. Building on XenApp, XenDesktop weaves together all of these technologies, allowing the shortcomings of each to be overtaken by the advantages of another.
If an application cannot function normally in a traditional Citrix farm, it can be run on a virtual desktop system under Xen or VMware, with the application seamlessly piped to the client. If the application can be streamed, it can be pulled from that particular pool. The cost to implement is high, but the rewards can be great with the right deployment.
Perhaps there is some light at the end of the corporate desktop tunnel after all.
-- Paul Venezia
Sun VirtualBox 3.1 We love disruptive products -- the kind that sneaks up on an established category or market segment and shakes up the apple cart. In the case of desktop virtualization, the cart has needed a good jolt for some time now. With VMware focused primarily on ever more vertical niches and Microsoft effectively withdrawing from competition, true examples of innovation have been few and far between.
Fortunately, an interloper has emerged to add some drama back into the mix. Sun VirtualBox 3.1 is proving to be a compelling alternative to VMware Workstation for many usage scenarios. And while the product still can't match its commercial contemporary's tight integration with Visual Studio or its robust VDI-authoring features, Sun VirtualBox 3.1 has actually pulled ahead of VMware in one important area: scalability.
With version 3.x, VirtualBox now supports up to 32 virtual CPUs per VM (VMware Workstation supports just 4). Add to this improved snapshot capabilities and 2-D acceleration for virtualized applications, and you have a solution nipping at VMware's heels in the general desktop virtualization space. However, even greater innovation is happening behind the scenes.
In a page straight out of the Microsoft playbook, Sun has quietly been building a live migration capability around the VirtualBox engine. The feature, dubbed Teleportation, first debuted with version 3.1 as a command-line function. Using a simple syntax, users can take a VM running under VirtualBox on one system and "teleport" it to another VirtualBox system, all the while preserving the VM's runtime state.
Needless to say, this is a huge development for Sun Microsystems, one that places it on a collision course with heavyweights VMware and Microsoft in the virtualized datacenter. But the most remarkable aspect of this story is how quickly the company has brought this virtualization platform along. In a little over a year, Sun has turned this relatively unknown fledgling from an obscure German software developer (Innotek) into a potent threat.
Our advice to VMware (and Microsoft): Be afraid. Be very afraid.
-- Randall C. Kennedy
Compellent Storage Center 4.2 From vendor to vendor, SAN storage systems generally share not only core functionality, but also what used to be considered advanced features, such as thin provisioning and local and remote replication. Compellent still offers features that many others don't. One of these is automated tiered storage, a data migration capability that EMC recently announced with a great deal of fanfare, several years after Compellent introduced it. Another is the ability to map multiple volumes to multiple virtual machines simultaneously. And yet another is consistency groups that allow easy setup of single LUNs mapped to multiple virtual machines for VMware VMotion and Microsoft Hyper-V Live Migration.
But what Compellent does better than other vendors is provide great ease-of-use and all the performance you could ask for at very moderate prices. In Compellent Storage Center, wizards make everyday tasks simple enough for untrained administrators to do, while a command-line scripting interface makes it simple for experienced admins to provision multiple LUNs with one step. Setting up a second Compellent Storage Center for remote replication of a local Storage Center is literally a matter of six clicks, and if the local SAN has a lot of data, there's an easy way to attach USB-based portable drives to seed the remote SAN without having to ship the whole rack around.
Extraordinary ease-of-use combined with great performance is the hallmark of the Compellent Storage Center, and the reason it once again wins InfoWorld's Technology of the Year Award.
-- Logan G. Harbaugh
Dell EqualLogic PS Series Dell EqualLogic SANs subscribe to the concept of "Do one thing and do it well," and boy, do they do it well. EqualLogic SANs are iSCSI only -- no multiprotocol file serving such as NFS, CIFS, or any other doodads, just blazing fast iSCSI performance and a hugely scalable design that guarantees that you cannot add storage without adding requisite redundant bandwidth.
The attention to detail throughout the PS Series product line is exemplary. Upgrading the firmware on an EqualLogic SAN is very simple, and can be accomplished without taking the array offline at any point. If some components need their firmware flashed, the upgrade process takes care of the whole process from start to finish. The management GUI is as good as any other, and the SAN HQ software gives a wide view of all storage components, processes, and performance.
Dell also takes things a step further with their integrated backup hooks. You can link to specific Microsoft SQL Server databases for instance, arrange for snapshots to be taken of that file system on a regular basis, and automate the restoration of just that database should a failure occur.
There are more reasons why we like Dell EqualLogic SANs so much, but our position can be summed up with the simple statement that Dell EqualLogic has produced a simple, stable, and elegant storage framework that will bring peace of mind to any infrastructure.
-- Paul Venezia
Amazon Web Services Amazon Web Services (AWS) is something like the world's biggest shopping mall of cloud-based services. Its array of selections is wide, ranging from storage-based services like SimpleDB, Amazon Relational Database Service, and Elastic Block Store to compute services like the Elastic Compute Cloud and Elastic MapReduce; to online ecommerce services like Amazon DevPay and Amazon Associates Web Service; to difficult-to-categorize services like the ad hoc job matchmaking service of Mechanical Turk.
Whether cloud computing ultimately establishes itself as a permanent platform for storage and data processing remains to be seen. One thing is certain, however; should cloud computing ultimately fail in its aspirations, no one will be able to blame Amazon for not trying. AWS extends to just about every dimension of cloud computing currently known. No doubt more "cloud solutions" are on the way, and as soon as someone figures out what they are, Amazon will probably be the first to provide an offering.
-- Rick Grehan
Apache Hadoop Hadoop is a data analysis application specifically designed to handle large data sets by employing distributed processing. Hadoop's scalability is remarkable; you can create and run a single-machine Hadoop system on your laptop or -- provided you have the space and finances -- deploy Hadoop across several thousand inter-networked computers.
More specifically, Hadoop is an implementation of the Map/Reduce algorithm developed by Google, running atop the Hadoop distributed file system (HDFS). Map/Reduce is a two-step process (the map step, followed by the reduce step), but each amounts to the mapping of one set of key/value pairs to another. When you create a Map/Reduce task to run in Hadoop, you write map and reduce routines (both are often remarkably small), and Hadoop acts as a managed runtime environment for them. Hadoop sees to it that distributed instances of your routines are executed, that input data is partitioned and sent to your routines, that the results are gathered and passed on to the next stage, and even that crashed instances are restarted and the situation is "healed."
Though the concept is simple, the result is powerful. Developers quickly catch on to writing map and reduce functions. (Nor are programmers restricted to a specific language for the functions; although Hadoop is Java based, you can write map and reduce functions in any language that can read and write standard input and output.) And Hadoop's scalability is practically linear. If your data gets twice as big, then double the number of systems in your Hadoop network. You need write no new code to accommodate the increase in the number of processors or expanded disk space; Hadoop sees to all that.
Best of all, Hadoop is an Apache project (and is therefore free) and has spawned several subprojects, each geared toward using the Hadoop technology to tackle huge data sets. Commercial users of Hadoop range from Amazon to Facebook to the New York Times. Amazon's Elastic MapReduce service is a Hadoop implementation.
-- Rick Grehan
Amazon SimpleDB Amazon's SimpleDB is precisely what its name implies: a simple database. It is simple in that creating a table (or, rather, SimpleDB's equivalent of a table -- a Domain) requires no schema. You don't have to tell SimpleDB "I am going to build a Domain whose structure is thus-and-so." You simply begin putting data into the Domain, and the structure happens.
SimpleDB is not a relational database (you could use Amazon Relational Database Service for that), but a comparatively feature-rich example of the new breed of "NoSQL" databases. Data is sorted in SimpleDB as name/value pairs, organized into items. The architecture of SimpleDB is best visualized as a table in a spreadsheet: attributes are columns, items are rows, and values are cell contents.
Operations in SimpleDB are a minimalist's dream. Domains are created or deleted using the CreateDomain and DeleteDomain requests, respectively. To read data, use GetAttributes (coupled with Select, which searches for specified data). To write data, use PutAttributes. To delete data, use DeleteAttributes. The Select operator -- analogous to SQL's SELECT statement -- recognizes a limited set of conditionals, but can handle the majority of basic queries.
SimpleDB is ideal for persistent storage and searching of structured data. It is used by AdaptiveBlue's Glue social networking tools, Pluribo Technology's summarization engine, and Mindscape's LightSpeed .Net object/relational mapping tool. Devver.net, a development company that builds cloud tools, uses SimpleDB with Ruby. As with other Amazon Web Services, SimpleDB's strength is its micropricing (which encourages proof-of-concept testing) and its ease-of-use.
-- Rick Grehan
The Eclipse IDE is also well served by subprojects that provide construction kits for building tools that abstract higher-level development tasks. For example, the Parallel Tools Platform furnishes building blocks for creating Eclipse-based plug-ins that assist in development within parallel computing environments. Photran -- a FORTRAN development environment in Eclipse -- is a product of the Parallel Tools Platform.
Other toolkits within Eclipse cater to activities adjunct to development. The Data Tools Platform provides tools for managing RDBMSes, executing SQL, managing database meta-content such as triggers and stored procedures, and so on. The Web Tools Platform is invaluable not only for working with Java EE-based applications, but its included Web Services Explorer can be used to interactively navigate SOAP-based Web services.
Best of all, Eclipse is platform agnostic. Eclipse-based tools run on Windows, Linux, Unix, and (in many cases) Mac OS X.
-- Rick Grehan
Apple iPhone OS 3.0 and App Store How do an evolutionary operating system upgrade and an established online store make our Technology of the Year list? They do it by reinforcing the supremacy of one of the seminal products of the decade.
Some might say that the iPhone 3GS was the big news of the year, but by bringing most of the newest iPhone's capabilities to the previous generation of hardware (as a free upgrade no less), iPhone OS 3.0 kept a huge block of users happy with their smartphones. It also kept the feature bar high for a parade of would-be iPhone killers, none of which came close to accomplishing the mission.
The challenges posed by the BlackBerry Storm, the Palm Pre, and the Android 2.0-based Droid were all made more difficult by the tens of thousands of applications available for ready purchase, download, and installation through the App Store and iTunes. The applications, which range from silly to mission-critical, have made the iPhone a viable mobile business platform for many, and a source of endless diversion for many more.
While Google's Android may yet prove to be a serious alternative to the iPhone, it will do so by following the model established by the iPhone and the App Store. The latest version of Apple's most portable operating system didn't radically remake the user experience in 2009, but the richness of that user experience and the store that supports it left little opportunity for alternatives. That's enough to land the pair on the Technology of the Year list.
-- Curtis Franklin, Jr.
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