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10 Growing Markets You Haven't Yet Considered

The CRN Test Center tracks 10 emerging and growing technologies that can bring big opportunity to channel partners.

In less than four years -- the same amount of time as a typical corporate IT refresh cycle -- we’ve seen more new software platforms, hardware platforms, device models and changes to use models than we’ve seen during any span in the industry’s history.

And while some new markets, like cloud computing, have gotten their share of attention and growth, others have been flying under the radar for many solution providers.

The CRN Test Center has had an opportunity to track a number of these emerging and growing areas, particularly those that have not gotten the same amount of ink or hype.

As the economy continues its slow turnaround from recession, and enterprises invest in real technology upgrades for the first time in several years, the opportunities for value that haven’t been considered are endless. Based on products and technologies we’ve actually reviewed in our lab, here is a list of 10 different segments that many VARs and enterprises have not yet considered as great areas of investment:

SMB Videoconferencing

When Cisco first rolled out its Telepresence technology in 2006, it opened up to a greater market the possibility of high-definition videoconferencing. The astonishing clarity of the video and audio is breathtaking and so utterly cool that it has been a focal point of Hollywood productions and television programs like ’24.’ But with bandwidth requirements that are 150 times greater than voice calling, and significant infrastructure commitment, it’s clearly out of reach of most small and midsize businesses.

Two major developments have begun to occur, though, over the past six months that will put high-definition videoconferencing into more SMB enterprises. First, some vendors -- such as LifeSize, a division of peripheral maker Logitech -- have begun to ship HD-quality videoconferencing solutions that can be built into existing network infrastructures, even at small or midsize enterprises. Second, Apple and Skype have launched bold, aggressive videoconferencing solutions for smartphones -- including Apple’s FaceTime for iPhone and Skype for iPhone.

The CRN Test Center has examined LifeSize Passport, a solution with a street price ranging from $2,300 to $3,000. While a fraction of the cost of Telepresence, it’s still an investment. So we wanted to know: Does it eliminate cost and complexity and unleash the power of video communication? The answers: Kind of, yes and yes.

Passport is easy to install: It’s a matter of connecting the 14-ounce console to the network, the included camera to the console and the LCD to the console. Passport supports Skype, which cuts through even more complexity. Because it’s so light and compact, it’s easy to take when traveling as well -- not just on road trips but even from conference room to conference room.

The video is crisp and clear, and it supports audio devices that provide HDlevels of quality as well. For small or midsize businesses to find ROI in the LifeSize Passport solution, concerns including travel budgets, the importance of collaboration and a business’ culture are all important to consider.

As for Apple’s FaceTime and Skype for iPhone, it’s clear that mobile video calling and conferencing are here to stay. After taking a good look at both, there’s very little not to like with each.

Having video-anywhere capability will change expectations and use patterns; count on that sparking (for lack of a better phrase) a video revolution.

With what we’ve seen in just the past few months alone, this is an avenue that’s ripe for opportunity in the channel.

NEXT: Virtual Appliances


Virtual Appliances

After years of examining both hardware-based and software-based appliances in the CRN Test Center lab, we’ve come to this conclusion: In the lion’s share of cases, software-based virtual appliances should simply be the default choice for a number of reasons.

For starters, a reduction of hardware infrastructure can mean an important reduction in overhead for any enterprise. That overhead includes power consumption, management, cooling costs and architecture. Then there’s simply the fact that industry-standard servers based on Intel’s or Advanced Micro Devices’ technology can now support servers that host anywhere from a half-dozen virtual appliances or more.

We’ve had the opportunity to examine a number of valuedriven, virtual appliances over the past several months.

Melville, N.Y.-based FalconStor has come to the fore with a number of virtual solutions in storage management, including its Network Storage Server Appliance. It is built on a Red Hat Linux 5 platform and supports VMware ESX.

More recently, in the past several weeks, we’ve had a chance to examine the Sophos Virtual Email Appliance e-mail security and data protection solution, which is optimized for VMware. Previous Sophos solutions have come into our lab as hardware-based appliances and, while we’ve often recommended them in the past, Sophos executives say their partners and customers have been calling for virtual solutions.

The installation of the Sophos Virtual Email Appliance took a few minutes, although configuration -- as with hardware-based appliances -- varies depending on the needs and size of an enterprise. However, licensing of $41.75 per year, per seat is the same as the hardware appliance without the hardware cost. We find it to be just as effective as Sophos hardware-based appliances as well.

For VARs that have experienced customer reluctance to embark on server consolidation because of the need to maintain these appliances, what we see is an elimination of that excuse. Virtual e-mail, security, storage and management appliances can cut down on hardware costs and expand opportunities to unlock even more IT value for enterprises of all sizes.

If an organization is running hardware appliances in its data center, the smart bet is that migrating them to virtual appliances will benefit just about all.

NEXT: Geo-Location


Geo-Location

Global positioning systems aren’t just for car dashboards anymore. Over the past two years, we’ve seen tremendous innovation with geo-location.

From package-tracking systems that allow customers to track freight from one end of the U.S. to another to Facebook applications, geo-location is showing greater potential every day.

Two solutions we’ve seen in recent months typify the potential of this segment. TomTom’s iPhone app now incorporates geo-tagged photos into its arsenal of providing turn-by-turn directions. From the app, users can now select a previously taken photograph with geo-tagged information and Tom- Tom will just use that information to provide Point A-to-Point-B directions. It’s as simple as that.

We’ve also seen an enterprise VoIP solution from Digium -- Switchvox -- that mashes Google Maps with caller ID information to let an organization geo-locate caller information with no muss or fuss. Taking it a step further, by integrating a caller’s Facebook information into caller ID features, it’s possible to import satellite GPS information from a Facebook status update a caller publishes into the operator’s console.

And AT&T shows what is possible for the smallest of enterprises. Its FamilyMap service can find a cell phone’s location information, either via satellite through a GPS function or by triangulation, to allow monitoring of someone’s whereabouts on a Web-based mapping application any time a phone is simply switched on and in a service area.

Personal and consumer uses of geo-location are now entering commercial solutions, and the potential to drive value is almost limitless. If you haven’t considered this segment in providing solutions, we think now is the time to start working it in.

NEXT: Social Networking/Data Mining


Social Networking/Data Mining

We’ve already mentioned the capacity of one enterprise solution -- Digium’s Switchvox -- to dive into social networking information and provide real value to an organization.

The ability to mine through tens of millions of public tweets, blurbs, status updates and more to isolate trends, spot public discussions of interest to an organization, and work to not just catch up but to get ahead of the curve in various markets can provide extensive ROI.

A best-in-breed solution, from our perspective, is PeopleBrowsr’s viral and social networking line card of solutions. One solution in particular, Research.ly, allows an enterprise to track mentions of a specific topic over 1,000 days to see spikes in conversation and discussion. For example, a search of social networking mentions of ’NBC’ for the past 1,000 days finds a massive spike in attention for the TV network during the period when Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien were caught in their hosting controversy.

Taking it to other places, it would be possible to track mentions of a brand of sneakers, for example, and spikes in conversation about that brand and determine the day of the week most people mention it in social networking interaction. That could let the sneaker maker find out that most mentions come on Sundays over a period of time and, then, it could target marketing efforts on that day of the week.

VARs that deliver data mining and analytics solutions now need to keep social networking in mind, as the explosion in data in this segment is met only by the explosion in opportunity.

NEXT: SMS


SMS

Over the past two years, since the advent of unlimited text messaging from companies such as Verizon and AT&T, the explosion in usage of SMS for everything from casual to urgent communications has been historic.

That makes it all the more mind-boggling that technology providers have not been more forthcoming with SMS-based solutions -- either to provide security for enterprises or to extend the reach of enterprise communication. But we’ve seen evidence that this is an area where solution providers can drive immense value in the right circumstances, and drive their influence deeper into the enterprise as a result.

One example: Netsize, a unit of Gemalto, provides Netsize SMS as an add-on app for Salesforce. com’s cloud-based CRM application. Installation is as close to instant as you can get (involving a simple sign-up and a couple of installation clicks from the Salesforce.com AppExchange). Configuration takes a few moments. Netsize SMS provides from-the-console text messaging of open case numbers to Salesforce.com users -- a particularly useful application that allows for a great extension of a cloud-based app to all manner of smartphones (and even some semi-smart phones).

With a market that’s almost too large to count (more than a trillion text messages are sent every year in just the U.S.), this is not a segment of IT that is going away any time soon -- count on just the opposite.

PC-Based CAD PC-Based CAD

In the early days of the industry, Computer Assisted Design was the province of massive, honking workstation machines put out by companies like Silicon Graphics and Sun Microsystems.

These were pieces of proprietary software. They required proprietary hardware. They were expensive and they required extensive training to even use.

Now, CAD is a free smartphone app.

It’s also a tremendous application for industry-standard PCs. The CRN Test Center has continued to recommend releases from Autodesk, including Autodesk Inventor and AutoCAD 2010. Both are applications that are fantastic for industry-standard, Windows 7-based PCs and both allow for low-overhead but high-intensity design creation.

We’ve also liked Google SketchUp, a free, hosted and browserbased (and thus, cross-platform) design and sketch creation app.

But the opportunity isn’t just in the applications themselves. It comes from delivering these newer CAD solutions as part of a new model of creating, sharing and collaboration.

High-definition sketches created on a PC can be shared on any platform from Facebook to iPhone to other PCs. And the reverse is true, as well: With Autodesk SketchBook Mobile, AutoCAD WS and Inventor Publisher, designs can be created on an iPhone, for example, and shared through other collaboration applications and examined on PCs as well.

The enterprise has become more visual -- well beyond Power- Point -- and sketch and design creation, sharing and editing can drive collaboration and creativity to a higher level. The fact that PC-based CAD and smartphone-based CAD has expanded the total addressable market by tens of millions in just two years indicates a tremendous market is sitting before value-added resellers and solution providers. The investment -- by both enterprises and VARs -- is also minimal compared to other eras in the PC industry.

CAD can be a differentiator for any enterprise steeped in creativity and collaboration, and now the opportunity is greater than it has ever been.

NEXT: Personal Health


Personal Health

There are many reasons to believe that digital health solutions, as a segment, have stalled. Powerhouse companies including Google, Intel and Microsoft, had rolled out major initiatives in this space over the past seven years, but bureaucracies in the medical vertical market -- among other reasons -- have seemed to act as roadblocks to expansion and growth.

We think that’s about to change for several reasons and because of several new enabling technologies.

On the front end, iOS and Android platforms have enabled a new generation of health and fitness apps. It’s now possible, in a given morning, to:

• Wake up refreshed, thanks to startup Perfect Third’s WakeMate device. WakeMate is worn on the wrist and, via Bluetooth, connects to the iPhone. By monitoring sleep cycles, it will allow you to set an alarm and, within the vicinity of that exact time, will use analytics that include pulse rate and sleep cycle to find the optimum time to wake you up -- via iPhone alarm -- so you feel refreshed. It will also assist in monitoring sleep patterns. Among the investors in this solution is the venture firm of Lotus founder Mitch Kapor.

• Track your weight gain, maintenance or loss digitally thanks to a solution developed by Withings. By using a WiFi-supporting, digital scale you can check your weight and, wirelessly, transmit the result to a Withings account which, in turn, supports tracking by Google Health online (which can be shared with your physician). Withings is financed, in part, by Polaris Ventures, which counts Ethernet inventor Robert Metcalfe in its senior ranks. Withings has also developed an iPhone-supporting blood pressure monitor, which was slated to be released later this year.

• After you check your weight, you can make sure you keep it on the healthier side by hitting the gym or pavement and taking a run -- using the Nike + iPod solution (that also works with iPhones). With the Nike solution, a transmitter that fits into the heel of a running shoe sends workout data, including miles run and calories burned, wirelessly to the iPod or iPhone and, then, a Nike + account online. While running, the application lets you sync your favorite iPod playlists to keep you energized.

• With health management solutions like Google Health and Microsoft Health Vault, it’s now possible to aggregate much personal health data and share it seamlessly with health-care providers. The combination of patient-based digital health technology now enabled on more personal and easier-to-use platforms, and online health-care collaboration enabled by Google and Microsoft, means a new market with explosive potential.

NEXT: Virtualized Desktop Infrastructure


Virtualized Desktop Infrastructure

There are very few sure things in life, but odds certainly favor the continued strong growth of the virtualized desktop infrastructure, which in many cases is an offshoot of a company’s existing private cloud. Already somewhat of a commodity, commercial VDI solutions come in many shapes and sizes, including fat-, thin- and zero-client solutions running a variety of protocols from familiar providers. The trend shows no signs of slowing.

In a nutshell, the virtual desktop infrastructure is one that stores one or more instances of Linux, Windows or another desktop operating system on a hypervisor-equipped server such as one running Microsoft’s Hyper-V or VMware’s ESX. Thin clients, computers or smartphones running thin-client software connect to the hypervisor and open one of the operating system images. Depending on the implementation, the hypervisor delivers either pixel-level changes or the entire desktop environment and applications to the client system.

A number of vendors pitch off-the-shelf solutions that can be sold for a relatively small up-front cost plus monthly maintenance. One example is Zenith Infotech and its SmartStyle Architecture, a node-based private cloud that employs one or more server nodes that virtualize the client operating system for IP-based delivery to new or existing client nodes of any kind. Benefits include remote control, centralized administration and realtime backup. Up-front costs to the reseller total around $2,000; per-user recurring revenue can be whatever the market will bear. Options include server redundancy, remote administration and centralized data snapshot.

Also in the game is Hewlett-Packard, which sent the CRN Test Center a VDI configuration that might be typical of one found in a small office or department. It consisted of a ProLiant ML-350 dual-Xeon server running VMware ESXi Server 4.1 along with a 64-bit Atom-based t5740 thin-client device (see the full review on page 26). With this HP solution, resellers have the flexibility to deploy one or a combination of sessionbroker clients from Microsoft (RDP), Citrix (XenDesktop), VMware (VMware View), or HP’s own TeemTalk terminal emulation client for accessing legacy platforms. Server options include stand-alone, blade or rack-mount hardware, each with the usual complement of failover and backup options.

When considering a VDI solution, VARs need to evaluate a customer’s infrastructure, such as existing servers, networking, hypervisor, remote office connections and the speed of its Internet connection.

NEXT: Solid State Drives


Solid State Drives

Have you checked the price of SSDs lately? If pricing has kept you and your customers away from deploying SSDs in mainstream client computing devices, it may be time to have another look. Thanks to a freefall in memory prices that’s been going on essentially since 2007, SSDs have gone from specialty products starting at $1,000 to a sub-$250 commodity now offered as options by many PC makers and white-box providers. An Intel 40-GB SATA SSD sells on the street for as little as $98. On average, SSDs cost as much as $2 per GB compared with around 20 cents per GB for low-end spinning hard drives.

The super-fast boot and access times of Flash-based drives, coupled with their resistance to shock, vibration, electromagnetic erasure and other harsh environmental factors, have made them the drive of choice for builders of ruggedized mobile computers, command and control systems of military and aerospace departments, scientific research systems and for other specialized applications. But pricing remained the primary obstacle to the widespread adoption that normally would allow economies of scale to bring about a price drop (read: LCD panels).

When compared with their spinning counterparts, SSDs all have one thing in common: They deliver orders of magnitude faster performance, particularly with random reads and writes. They’re small, light and use the same interfaces that magnetic hard drives do. Other benefits include instant spinup, zero noise, less power usage and heat dissipation requirements, low latencies and no moving parts to wear out.

But on the subject of wearing out, you should know that SSDs are not all upside. Those made with Flash memory, the less expensive alternative to DRAM, have a limited number of writes over the life of the drive. How limited? That depends on the type of Flash memory being used. Single-level cell (SLC) technology offers the longest life at about 100,000 write cycles per cell, more than enough to outlast a server or laptop. The usable life of multilevel cell (MLC) technology, commonly used in thumb drives, can vary from 1,000 to 10,000 write cycles before it begins to fail, according to memory maker Fujitsu.

Then there’s free block availability, a problem that’s roughly analogous to fragmentation. When data is erased from an SSD, those previously used sectors are normally kicked back to the file system for reallocation. An overabundance of these blank spaces can degrade performance over time.

NEXT: Digital Signage


Digital Signage

With the cost of flat-panel monitors falling like snow in the Northeast this winter, the timing has never been better for considering a move into the digital signage market. Aside from pitching them to doctors, dentists and other professionals for their waiting rooms, the screens are popping up in restaurants, retail stores, delis, diners, and even on gas pumps. And like a Web page crowded with banner ads, the human eye moves to the one that’s animated. Dynamic billboards simply grab more attention at airports and in storefronts than static signs do.

Staking one of the largest claims to the market in digital signage real estate is NEC Display Solutions of America, which in October began shipping what can only be called an LED video wall. Available for indoor and outdoor settings, these professional grade, made-to-order LED panels are a bezel-less design featuring a refresh rate greater than 800Hz, and are driven by a standard dual-link DVI-D interface and 14- and 16-bit color processing. Both also include automatic brightness controls to ensure evenness between panels. Setup software automatically calculates the matrixing and dot-pitch corrections for optimal accuracy.

Indoor and outdoor models employ multicolor lamps with red, green and blue LEDs that comprise each pixel. These lamps were developed and supplied by Nicha Corp., credited with the invention in 1993 of the blue LED, and are said to be the longest-lasting lamps on the market today. Servicing can take place from the front or rear of the panels, and NEC provides LED Wall Manager Control software as well as mounting and video distribution processors and cabling options.

The indoor model, the LED-06AF1, is brightness-rated at 2,000 NITs, which is about 10 times that of an ordinary LCD desktop display with a rated contrast ratio of 3,500:1. We stood in front of one of these units at a recent launch event and could not look directly at it without squinting.

The indoor model also employs black LEDs and an improved shader to boost contrast and reduce reflections. When viewed from a distance of 15 to 20 feet or more, the 6mm pixel pitch was barely noticeable. The LED-06AF1 is intended for ’live sign’ applications in retail stores, shopping malls, broadcast studios and other areas where large numbers of people will view the display from varying moderate distances.

More impressive is the outdoor unit and its 7,500 NIT brightness rating. With its 15mm pixel pitch, the outdoor LED-15BF1 boasts a 4,500:1 contrast ratio and a NEMA rating for dust and moisture ingress protection of IP65. Explained briefly, the first digit of the ’ingress protection’ rating indicates how much protection is provided from solid objects, which usually means dust or sand. The highest rating is 6, which means it’s totally impervious to dust incursion. The second digit indicates protection from liquids.

A rating of 8 (the highest) means the unit can be totally submerged in water and survive. NEC’s outdoor LED wall scores a 5 here, meaning that it can withstand water jets from any direction and will not be damaged by a slight ingress of water. The LED- 15BF1 is intended to be used for billboards, sports arenas, concert halls, airports and other public areas.

The indoor and outdoor LED products began shipping in October 2010 and are covered by a three-year parts and labor warranty. Both modules will be built-to-order with a 120-day lead time.

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