Dr Seth Dobrin, Global Chief AI Officer at IBM
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By: Guy Matthews, Editor of NetReporter

The last 12 months have seen many carefully laid technology plans blown off course, driving IT investments in unforeseen directions. While there is still much uncertainty as we look ahead, it is time to weigh up the IT investment priorities that will drive recovery and growth.

COVID-19 has had a major impact on IT investment decisions. Its distorting effect has seen investment in some areas accelerate massively, while other plans have by necessity fallen by the wayside. So with recovery in sight, where do we go from here? What should enterprise IT plans look like, and how confident should CIOs feel about implementing them?

On the subject of confidence, some recent findings from independent research firm GlobalData reveal that over 50% of the executives it recently questioned still feel ‘very concerned’ about the spread of COVID-19 and its impact on their organisation.

See more: Regaining momentum after a tough year for data centres

“Going back to March of 2020, pessimism was high and optimism was low about company growth prospects,” explains Jeremiah Caron, Global Head of Research & Analysis with the firm. “This improved over time, but there still is some caution out there.”

So what does Caron see as the major investment areas going forwards once confidence is fully restored? “Multi-cloud evolution is huge, edge computing is gaining momentum very quickly, plus 5G monetization and what’s going to happen there,” he says. “SD WAN, certainly not a new technology, continues to drive the nature of how we’re networking going forward. AI, again something that’s been around for a long time, is moving into a practical stage with people learning how to use it to drive innovation. Security, obviously, is huge.”

 

He observes that the use of multiple cloud environments within businesses was already well underway pre-pandemic, but took a step acceleration in 2020: “We foresee significant growth here over the next four or five years. There are still companies who would like to focus on one cloud environment, because of the simplicity, but really everything is moving into multi-cloud. Beyond that, we see an environment where applications are driving networking with a lot of autonomous management in real time.”

See more: Less complexity, more control: the role of multi-cloud networking in digital transformation

GlobalData’s findings also show that 50% of the enterprises it polled plan to spend more on cybersecurity going forwards, with only 20% saying they were going to spend less.

To broaden the conversation around these areas, NetEvents pulled together a roundtable of expert names from across the industry to get an idea of how IT priorities will play out. How has COVID impacted priorities?

Chris Bedi is Chief Information Officer with ServiceNow, developer of a cloud computing platform designed to help companies manage digital workflows for enterprise operations. He has noted a rise in processes that are digitally orchestrated: “We saw for example a big increase in the use of self-service virtual agents, or chatbots, across our whole firm,” he says. “Also, as we’ve started to bring the workforce back to the office, there’s a new set of complications which arise. One is how do you make sure everyone’s healthy?  Do you need to do health verification?  What’s your company policy on vaccinations, how do you make sure everybody’s socially distant?  We built a set of apps here to enable all of that and we have over 1,000 companies using them worldwide.”

Operations that were not digitally orchestrated, he says, simply broke down during the crisis: “There’s been an awakening, across the entire C-suite, of the need to digitize. We’ve seen across our customer base that decisions which would have taken nine months are now getting implemented in weeks, so speed has massively increased. I think it’s fair to say 2020 was the first year where digital transformation spending increased while GDP was declining worldwide.”

Gaurav Anand is a Board Member of Tata Communications, America. He reports that pre-pandemic, on a global basis, around 5% of Tata Communications employees worked from home: “When COVID hit we went to 95% working from home, overnight,” he points out. “It’s not just keeping your own business running but it’s keeping the business of the customers that you serve running. I feel like we’re thriving now with new business models coming across. I have read that globally enterprises have accelerated digital transformation by six years.”

See more: The intelligent way to automate the network

Today’s multi-cloud environment is the sign of a healthy IT outlook, argues Amir Khan, President, Founder and CEO of network-as-a-service player Alkira: “It’s really opening up new capabilities for customers from a service perspective,” he claims. “Networking used to be very static. Now people are asking why isn’t it like any other application that they can utilize in the cloud. So for the first time, we are starting to see networks being built in the cloud, for the cloud as well as for hybrid environments. People are looking at a ubiquitous environment, not only from the branches but also remote users. They want to have one way of interconnecting all their environments whether it’s branches, or users, or data centres or clouds. And then on top of that they want to simplify the deployment of services, as well as gain end to end visibility and governance capabilities.”

Dr Seth Dobrin, Global Chief AI Officer at IBM, points out the huge difference between multi cloud and hybrid cloud, an important distinction as we move into a new cloud era: “You’ve been able to do multi-cloud for a while now, which is where you have different environments acting independently of each other, whereas hybrid cloud is all about how you integrate seamlessly across all the different clouds,” he notes. “And when we start looking at the impact of COVID, when we want to operationalize AI, we need to be able to operate in this hybrid cloud world, meaning that we need build and modernize our entire state.”

As well as developments in cloud, cybercrime proliferated in the pandemic to the point where most people expect to get hit with something at some point, says Caron. Cybersecurity in consequence is certain to be a high post-pandemic IT spending priority.

“We certainly view cyber as super critical, as our customers trust us with an incredible amount of data in our cloud,” says Bedi of ServiceNow. “I think, looked at the right way, cyber should be seen as a strategy enabler. How are we going to enter into new markets, how are we going to grow and offer new products and services? I think the narrative around cyber needs to change from solely risk mitigation.”

Dobrin of IBM identifies trust as being a key factor for the implementation of AI: “A big part of trust is security,” he suggests. “So how do you deliver AI in a secure and compliant manner? When you’re talking about multi geography, multi clouds across multiple regions you’re having to make sure from a data privacy and ethics concern that you’re moving data in a way that’s compliant with regulations. That doesn’t even begin to touch on how do you secure AI. How do you protect your models from releasing information? How do you make sure that your models are trained in a way that prevents people from poisoning the data pool?  Then how do you make sure your models are trained in a way that doesn’t reveal private information?”

Tata’s Anand says enterprises are looking at the application, the data, the devices and the users: “Then you’ve got the network and then security comes in as a third kind of layer on the top,” he explains. “In the way that it’s done today it’s very siloed with different components that need to be brought together. And those gaps sometimes lead to some of these breaches we’re seeing.”

Khan of Alkira believes that the industry has evolved to where cloud providers are spending so much money that service providers are not able to keep up: “You used to have MPLS with an SLA which was strong,” he points out. “It was extremely expensive and low on bandwidth, whereas on the Internet side it was insecure, featuring extremely high bandwidth with low costs but almost no SLA, so you had two extremes. Now comes the cloud which offers extreme capabilities with strong SLAs, a less expensive and highly dynamic environment. So how do we integrate that? That’s where the cloud network as a service comes in.”

AI and automation are also certainties on the list of post-COVID IT investment agendas, says Caron of Global Data. Dobrin of IBM visualises that as part of the AI and automation landscape you have software defined networks, software defined infrastructure and cloud, and now the rise of software defined storage: “The application of AI is immense in that area, but we need to be careful about where we use AI,” he opines. “There’s how we automate things versus where we use AI to augment our intelligence. In other words, where do we use AI to reduce the nearly infinite realm of possibilities? How do we use it to shorten the time frame, get the best decisions, the best options in front of a person, and let them drive those decisions based on their expertise and the insights that were given from the system?”

Bedi of ServiceNow believes enterprises need to trust algorithms more: “We need to understand in the same way as when Netflix is recommending the next movie, and we just click on it. AI must be embedded in the workflow, so it’s not some separate thing. I think that’s critical, because that’s what has been done in our consumer lives and I think that is where we will see accelerated adoption.”

 

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