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2007 Tech Innovators: Unlocking The Secrets Of Innovation

Solution providers' customers rarely ask for the latest bleeding-edge, whiz-bang technology. They want technology innovation--but innovation that solves problems at lower costs without adding complexity.

Solution providers' customers rarely ask for the latest bleeding-edge, whiz-bang technology. They want technology innovation--but innovation that solves problems at lower costs without adding complexity.

That approach to innovation is a common theme among the winners of the 2007 Tech Innovator Awards, from Hewlett-Packard's BladeSystem c3000 "Shorty" enclosure, to Yosemite Technologies' FileKeeper Pro file backup and version rollback software, to the SonicWall TZ 190 Wireless network security system.

The winners of this year's awards were announced at the fifth annual XChange Tech Innovator conference in Miami last month. Chosen from nearly 400 entries, the winners were judged by the editors of the CMP Channel Group to be the most innovative products in 15 product categories, plus the prestigious Tech Innovator Editors' Choice Award.

"I think innovation is alive and well in the channel and in the industry," said Gary Bixler, director of North America marketing at AMD, which won the Editors' Choice Award for its Barcelona quad-core Opteron processor.

Alive and well, yes, but innovating in today's business climate isn't easy. Rapid technology cycles mean that today's innovation is tomorrow's "me-too" commodity. Research and development budgets are tight. Some even say IT innovation is being stifled by large companies that acquire startups with innovative products.

Innovation "takes vision and focus and listening to your customers. They know what the problem is, they just don't know how to solve it," said Jeff Caldwell, research and development director at SonicWall.

Caldwell can testify how much innovation drives product demand and how the payoffs for successful innovation can be huge. He and product manager John Gordineer tell the story of how they took a prototype of the TZ 190

Wireless to Europe last year to show to prospective customers. One customer in Madrid wanted 3,000 immediately--and even tried to buy the prototype.

Companies trying to develop innovative products face all kinds of hurdles. Standards must be adhered to, and compatibility with existing technology must be maintained. New products can't be so complex that channel partners are unable to implement them or customers use them--"feature fatigue" one exec calls it. And the final product must be price-competitive.

"The industry is littered with technology solutions that didn't win. To me, innovation is all about paying attention to the big picture and executing on the details," said Mark Potter, vice president and general manager of HP's BladeSystem product line.

"The majority of innovation is evolutionary, improvement on an idea," said David Confalonieri, marketing vice president at Extricom, whose WLAN system won in the wireless technology category. "Innovation is when technology takes a leap in performance and sophistication, coupled with a big drop in complexity. Solution providers want something that's significantly easier to deploy."

Next: No Magic Formula

Interviews with this year's Tech Innovator Award winners show there's no magic formula to developing innovative products. Extricom's Confalonieri said innovation is "imagination followed by dogged persistence"--a variation on Thomas Edison's comment that genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.

What are the elements of a winning strategy? Listening to what channel partners and customers are saying, anticipating leading customers' future needs rather than just meeting their current demands, leveraging a company's technology and intellectual property in new ways, and getting employees from different operations across a company to work together are the foundations.

To develop its Oracle SOA Suite, this year's winner in the enterprise business software category, Oracle conducted research with a panel of 100 "early adopter" customers to understand how they are using service-oriented architecture technology and what they wanted in the Oracle product, said Kevin Clugage, product director of Oracle Fusion Middleware. "Our challenge is getting our arms around all the technology elements our customers need to be successful with SOA," he said.

Said HP's Potter: "I know it sounds trite, but we really start with the customer and their pain points." Potter said that as the pace of innovation accelerates, coordination between HP teams developing various components of a product becomes critical--otherwise customers will end up with a collection of technologies from the company's hardware, software and data storage groups rather than an integrated product.

"We're always mindful about maintaining compatibility and the connection with the installed base," said FalconStor Software CEO ReiJane Huai. "You have to think [a new product] through and how to plug it into a real-world IT environment. You can't be too far ahead of the curve." FalconStor's Continuous Data Protection Virtual Appliance for VMware was voted this year's winner in the storage category.

Partners have a big stake in the products their vendors develop, so it's not surprising they frequently have a role in the process.

"We find some of our channel partners to be particularly savvy when it comes to managing products over time," said Oracle's Clugage. While Oracle understands the technology that underpins its products, he said, solution providers often have a better sense of how customers will use a product and manage its total cost of ownership--all of which can influence design. For that reason, channel partners sit on a number of Oracle's customer advisory boards.

HP shared its ideas and designs with channel partners when developing the BladeSystem c3000. Among the feedback: The system's remote management capabilities needed to be not just good enough but best-in-class, Potter said. Partners "are kind of the front lines. They know firsthand what customers need."

One HP partner on the front lines is Altos Technology Group, Sacramento, Calif., which offers IT infrastructure consulting services and resells HP servers, including the BladeSystem c3000. "HP relies heavily on us for customer input," said Altos President Brady Flaherty, noting HP "does a really good job sending engineers into the field" to meet with partners and customers for feedback on prototypes.

Huai, meanwhile, said the idea for the FalconStor Continuous Data Protection Virtual Appliance for VMware came out of a conversation between solution provider IPM and Wendy Petty, FalconStor's executive vice president of sales.

IPM, a New York-based technology consulting and systems integration company, is also a VMware partner and does a lot of work with virtual storage. "We said, 'Can you do this in a virtual environment?' " IPM President Myron Bari said, recalling conversations between his technical team and Petty. "We thought that would be innovative and provide a lot of the functionality you can get from a physical device." Noting the rapid growth in demand among SMBs for data protection systems, Bari said: "A significant portion of that market can be handled by a virtual device rather than a physical device. Clients are always looking to maximize their return [on IT] and make life simpler. Especially in our field, companies like FalconStor need to innovate all the time--or someone else will."

Ideas for innovative products can pop up anywhere, as Jason Owen, product manager at networking technology developer Hawking Technologies, can attest. During a company Christmas party in 2004, an employee off-handedly remarked that he wished he could have in his home the same kind of networked automation system Hawking develops for office environments. That led to lots of scribbling on paper napkins--the first draft of plans for the Home- Remote home automation system that was this year's Tech Innovator Award winner in the connectivity category.

"It's pretty bold. We've never made a move like this before," Owen said of its entry into home automation. Hawking took the approach that it's an IP networking company--rather than an office automation company--and that its wired and wireless technology and expertise could be applied to new markets.

But for all the work by manufacturers to innovate, they recognize that many of their inventions are just the foundation that custom-system builders, ISVs, solution providers and other partners build upon. Said AMD's Bixler: "After we develop our product, that's where we see the real innovations begin."

Next: AMD On Opteron: We Listened And Learned

AMD ON OPTERON: We Listened And Learned

FOR AMD, the challenge in designing the quad-core Opteron Barcelona processor wasn't coming up with the highest-performing chip possible. It was designing a high-performance product that remained compatible with the system architectures of AMD's system builder customers and didn't consume twice as much power or generate twice as much heat.

"We could take a clean sheet of paper and build the most leading-edge processor with the coolest stuff," said John Fruehe, AMD worldwide market development manager for server products. "But it wouldn't be what the customer wanted. Keeping it within the realm of what customers expected was really where the innovation occurred," he said.

Development of the new Opteron chip began as early as 2003, Fruehe said. Although it's built on Opteron architecture that goes back to 1999, it's designed to operate within the same socket and thermal range as AMD's current generation of dual-core processors.

One innovation, for example, is the chip's ability to turn off portions of its processor logic and memory controller when not in use to reduce power consumption.

Given the long lead time needed to develop products like this, the biggest challenge is anticipating customers' needs years beforehand, said Gary Bixler, director of North America marketing. "The first thing you do is spend a lot of time with your customers. And you just listen a lot."

--Rick Whiting

Next: 2007 Tech Innovator Award Winners And Finalists

2007 Tech Innovator Award Winners And Finalists

Advanced Micro Devices: Quad-Core Opteron processor

Oracle: Oracle SOA Suite
Quest Software: Foglight
Zimbra: Zimbra Collaboration

Yosemite Technologies: Yosemite FileKeeper Pro
Fonality: Tribox 2.0
IP Commerce: PASS Commerce Center
RHUB Communications: RHUB 200 on-premise Web conferencing appliance

Hawking Technologies: HomeRemote wireless home automation system
Adtran: NetVanta 1335
Netgear: ProSafe 48-port gigabit Ethernet PoE smart switch

Samsung Electronics America: SyncMaster 225UW
Planar Systems: PX2611W
ViewSonic: WPG-150

Motorola: Motorola MC35 Enterprise Digital Assistant
Fluke Networks: OptiView Series III integrated network analyzer
Siemens Enterprise: OpenStage IP phones

N-able Technologies: N-central 6.5 remote monitoring and management platform
Digisense: Digisense System
Level Platforms: Managed Workplace version 6.0

Hewlett-Packard: HP Compaq dc5750 Business Desktop PC
Lenovo: ThinkCentre A61e
Shuttle Computers: Shuttle XPC SG33G5

Panasonic Computer Solutions: Toughbook 52
Motion Computing: Motion C5
Samsung Electronics America: Q1 Ultra

Oki Data Americas: C8800 Series digital color printers
Hewlett-Packard: HP CM8060/CM8050 color MFPs with Edgeline technology
Xerox: Xerox WorkCentre 7300 Series

SonicWall: TZ 190 Wireless system
RSA, the Security Division of EMC: RSA enVision platform
Symantec: Symantec Mobile Security Suite 5.0

Hewlett-Packard: HP BladeSystem c3000
Aberdeen: Aberdeen "Blade Killer" Stirling 122
Advanced Micro Devices: Quad-Core AMD Opteron processor
SGI: SGI Altix ICE 8200

FalconStor: FalconStor Continous data Protection Virtual Appliance for VMware
EMC: Celerra NS20
Vembu Technologies: Vembu StoreGrid -- Service Provider Edition

Catbird: catbird V-Agent
Virtual Iron: Virtual Iron 4.0
VMware: VMware Workstation
Zeus Technology: ZXTM Virtual Appliance

Switchvox: Switchvox MSB 3.0
Cisco Systems: Cisco Smart Bsuiness Communications System
ShoreTel: ShoreTel 7

Extricom: Extricom WLAN
DiVitas Networks: DiVitas Mobile-toMobile Convergence Solution
Ruckus Wireless: Ruckus ZoneFlex System

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