Smashing Limits

This is how innovation works:

Big advances in technology create huge ripples--ripples that drive advances throughout the technology chain and create value and opportunity for everyone.

A processor manufacturer makes smaller, more efficient, cooler processors. Those processors go not just into PCs but into appliances that host, among other things, security software and sit in data center racks--keeping hackers and malware out of networks. Sometimes that cycle is longer. Sometimes, as we've seen during the past 12 months, it is shorter and much more potent.

"I think it's been a very good year," said Stan Jensen, president of Associated Data Products, a Shreveport, La., solution provider. "A lot of good products have come into the marketplace."

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Innovation has been found, Jensen said, in products like Intel Corp.'s Modular Server, released in January, which combined elements of higher-end servers and networking in a box tailor-made for VARs and customers in the small- and midsize-business space.

This year's VARBusiness Tech Innovators issue was blessed by a relative embarrassment of riches--with a story to tell that includes not only Intel's Mod Server and Atom and quad-core processors, but also Lenovo Group's ground-breaking ThinkPad X300, and solutions that made significant advances in security, messaging, productivity and more.

Week after week, it seems, the Test Center has had the chance to evaluate products and solutions that delivered innovation as well as value. And this round didn't begin a moment too soon.

Just two years ago, the industry was grappling with how to get Windows Vista to work right for customers. Most major PC manufacturers were in the middle of a large-scale notebook battery recall that posed a significant threat not only to sales, but to the market's trust in the industry. Malware like the Storm Bot was giving enterprises fits. Despite years of promise, data centers were still generating electric bills that many customers believed were too high for systems that took too many resources to manage. The paperless office was a tease.

Had this trajectory continued into the current economic downturn, well, whoa, Nellie. PCs would still cost too much, data centers would be IT budget-killers, hackers would be in malware heaven and VARs would have hours of ugly customer conversations today that would, in all probability, not end well.

Instead, innovation has saved IT.

The launch of Intel's Modular Server, winner of this year's Tech Innovators' Award for servers, started the year and as it ends we're seeing innovation in energy-efficient technology, virtualization and battery life. Better data center design, processing and thermal engineering in servers and PCs are also making other innovation possible. Consider IP telephony.

VoIP has extended its reach, from both a technological perspective and a market perspective. Innovation in computing has led to an increasingly compelling value proposition for VoIP, not just on the high end but on small and midsize customers as well.

Ross LaBarbera, president and CEO of Red Phoenix Telephony Software Systems LLC, an Allen, Texas-based solution provider that specializes in telephony, said manufacturers have begun providing building blocks--along with the freedom for VARs to "be creative"--and that's led to better-rounded offerings.

"We've seen more of the acceptance, and the need, for desktop integration of telephony," LaBarbera said. "We can integrate telephony into different applications on the desktop so that you never even have to touch your phone. That leads to solutions where, for example, in Outlook I can drag and drop contacts to right where they can be called."

Lenovo, Raleigh, N.C., has provided one example of innovation after another during the past year. Our "Editor's Choice" for innovative product was handed to Lenovo for its industry-leading ThinkPad X300. With the X300, Lenovo has combined the traditional, business-sober value of the ThinkPad with the power of an ultraslim, but powerful, mobile PC.

Weighing in as low as 2.9 pounds, the ThinkPad X300 is about three-quarters of an inch thick at its thinnest point and features a 13.3-inch LED backlit display, removable battery and built-in DVD burner. It also has WLAN and Gigabit Ethernet connectivity and GPS capabilities. The notebook has a 64-GB solid state drive and Intel Centrino with vPro technology and up to 4 GB of memory. With an optical drive (Apple's MacBook Air doesn't have one), Lenovo delivered a notebook that provides a new level of mobility without any compromises. None. Nada. It's one of the coolest notebooks we've ever seen, from a thermal perspective, and is built with business in mind.

The integration of SSD storage, as opposed to HDD storage, is a method being implemented by several notebook makers. That's new over the past year and Jensen, for one, believes it's a huge development. SSD, he said, "is going to be a game-changer" because of its ability to improve energy efficiency, reliability and the life of internal storage.

Notebook manufacturers aren't the only ones taking advantage of advances in processing, storage, thermal design and energy efficiency. This year's innovation award for security goes to Check Point Software Technologies Inc. for its Unified Threat Management device. In years past, stand-alone security software ruled. But, because of new rafts of innovation, that's changing.

"I, personally, have seen a lot of innovation in the embedded channel," said James Huang, director of marketing at Amax IT, a Fremont, Calif.-based contract manufacturer and system builder. "What we're seeing is a floodgate of chassis, of components, that really make the appliances more affordable. Innovation has really driven down price, made it really affordable and widely available," Huang said.

Credit innovation from the edge of the network to the heart of the data center this year for allowing VARs to continue doing what they do best: deliver value. Already, a look ahead at 2009 shows a migration to 32-nanometer processors and potentially a new desktop operating system from Microsoft. Recent reports indicate that some malware, like the once-notorious Storm Bot, have been all but eradicated--forcing hackers to look for new ways to keep up. No doubt they won't give up soon, which makes continued innovation all the more important.