The best hardware and software of the year

InfoWorld's 2011 Technology of the Year Awards recognize the best products at the forefront of today's top data center, desktop, mobile, and programming trends

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To what extent smartphones will merge with small-form-factor tablets is still unclear, but the trend seems inevitable. We expect that Google Android -- our pick for best mobile platform -- will be the operating system that leads the way in determining this, in good part because it is open source and developers are made to feel welcome driving innovation. Apple's command-and-control approach to development and application distribution may start to carry real costs as this evolution occurs.

Developers play a prominent role in the success or failure of any new technology. For this reason, we continue to examine many developer tools at InfoWorld, with a special interest in IDEs, the programmer's principal tool. Due to the heavily graphics and multimedia orientation of client endpoints and Web interfaces, development is now concentrated in IDEs rather than editors. The need for the integrated design and test tools is simply too great for editors to be the key tool they once were.

We give several awards to IDEs this year, including one to Microsoft Visual Studio 2010. Microsoft, having been founded by programmers, has always understood that wooing developers is an important way to foster technology adoption. Its MSDN program and extensive developer tool suites demonstrate this commitment. See the accompanying slideshow for our top picks among Java, Python, and PHP tools.

[ Read about the winning hardware, software, and development tools in our slideshow, "InfoWorld's 2011 Technology of the Year Award winners." ]

Big data and cloud computing
The explosion of data has given rise to tools of truly massive scale that were essentially unthinkable a few years ago. Hadoop and its constituent parts, for example, happily handle hundreds of gigabytes of data as if this were a mundane computing operation. The implementation of these tools on a huge scale is now cheaply accessible via Amazon EC2 and its related services and through Google App Engine.

At the same time, the need for databases to handle large volumes of nontabular and nontransactional data has spurred the so-called NoSQL movement. It's not clear to what extent this movement has legs, despite being driven by multiple, popular open source projects. The "no SQL" aspect is being undermined by efforts to create SQL front ends for these products. As they move more closely to existing models for IT, they edge toward adoption by mainstream RDBMS vendors, who have shown themselves adept at folding new technologies into core products. We recognized some of these large data projects in our Bossie 2010 awards, which are given out yearly to the best open source projects.

Big data would not be possible without big infrastructure to support it -- and big infrastructure increasingly means the cloud. Virtualized storage and virtualized computing are proving themselves to be effective and highly flexible alternatives to the bricks and mortar of on-premises data centers. This view is a step forward from even a year ago, when clouds were seen primarily as a match for developer tasks, such as testing and debugging -- still the lead use case for clouds among many enterprises.

Now the cloud is emerging as a good platform for running large-scale analysis without requiring a commensurate investment in hardware. The cloud's attractive features (low op-ex rather than cap-ex, transparent backup and redundant systems, instant capacity expansion, and ease-of-use) will no doubt continue to draw new adherents.

Virtualization and multicore
Virtualization -- the key enabler of the cloud -- can place considerable stress on processors, which is one of the reasons that CPUs today contain dedicated circuitry to reduce the software overhead of virtualization operations. In addition, the profusion of cores on new CPUs allows virtualization platforms to host many virtual machines without compromising performance.

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