As 2016 winds down and disappears into the Deleted Items folder of history, it's time to look back over the past year and reflect on some of the major events, developments, announcements and trends that impacted the IT industry and the ever-evolving world of technology.
Depending on your perspective, your list might be different, but here are some that first come to mind for me:
1: Microsoft "rolls up" its OS updates
Those of us who spend much of our time immersed in security issues, software vulnerabilities and trying to stay one step ahead of the hackers and attackers who exploit them, Microsoft's changes to the way it rolls out security updates means, in some cases, more work and frustration for us. Consumers may find the new "all in one" rollup patches for Windows simpler and easier to deal with; however, IT pros are used to having more granular control over which fixes we install. These cumulative updates can make it more difficult to troubleshoot patch-related problems, and the necessity of rolling back the entire thing if a problem results means less protection for vulnerable systems. Network auditing is essential to keep track of the update status of all the nodes on the network.
2: Microsoft scraps security bulletins
This change actually won't be implemented until February 2017, but the announcement in November that there will be no more of the traditional security bulletins after the January update release has many IT pros anxious about whether they'll still be able to easily get the information they need in the coming year. The MSRC blog post that introduced this frames it as a response to customers' desire for better access, but at the very least there will be a learning curve as IT pros have to wean themselves off the traditional bulletins that we know and love/hate, and start using the Security Updates Guide portal to ferret out the details about each set of updates and the vulnerabilities they address. Good patch management policies and practices are needed to navigate these new waters.
3: The cloud covers it all
Cloud computing isn't new, but the business world got a lot more cloudy in 2016. In September, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Gartner and others predicted that cloud adoption among enterprises is poised to take off in a big way in the next few years, with the foundations for that being laid this year as the competition between the top two players in the IaaS space – Amazon and Microsoft – ramped up with many new features and capabilities introduced. Earlier security concerns are being addressed so that security is no longer considered the biggest challenge of moving to the cloud. Now the top problem is a skills shortage – but the good news is that cloud vendors are making the move to the cloud easier. With your local network more entwined with the Internet than ever before, endpoint security takes on an even more vital role.
4: Email breaches pose a continuing danger
While consumer communications have moved in large part to social media, texting and private messaging apps, businesses still rely heavily on email to exchange information between co-workers, vendors, and customers. The discovery in May that more than 270 million email accounts had their passwords stolen and made available by Russian criminals highlights the importance of choosing your email provider wisely and taking steps to implement additional security measures to protect the integrity and confidentiality of your messages.
5: Fake news floods the Internet
Amidst a stormy U.S. presidential election campaign, 2016 spawned a torrent of websites dedicated to pushing one political agenda, cause or candidate or another. With a substantial number of adults getting some or all of their news online, these partisan-biased sites have become a concern for businesses as employees waste company time clicking on links to the latest bits of exaggerated or blatantly false propaganda from both sides of the aisle. Never before has the need for good web filtering solutions been more apparent – and even with the election (finally) behind us, there's no indication that this phenomenon will go away soon.
6: Scammers go after the big phish
We tend to think of phishing attacks as a threat to consumers, especially novice computer users who aren't technically savvy. In 2016, however, phishing attacks targeted businesses with a vengeance. Dozens of companies were affected by an attack that goes after W-2 and other tax-related information, which reveals details about both the individual employees and the organizations that issue the documents. Meanwhile, over half of companies surveyed by IT security vendor Tripwire reported an increase in the incidence of spear phishing targeting the business or individual employees or executives.
7: Macro malware makes a comeback
2016 also saw the return of an old form of exploit: attacks accomplished through malicious Microsoft Office macros. The most common way to distribute these small, sophisticated mini-programs is via spam email, thus this is another reason email security and spam filtering matter. One of the best-known bits of malicious code that was distributed this way in 2016 was Locky, a form of ransomware which encrypts files on the computer and then demands payment in bitcoins. Dridex is another macro-based, email-distributed Trojan that hit hard in early 2016 and stole banking credentials of thousands of victims.
8: Compliance gets even more complicated
Keeping abreast of the regulatory compliance landscape has never been easy, and in 2016, it became even more difficult as new laws and industry rules, along with increasing globalization that adds more countries' legal requirements into the mix, amplified the complexity even more. But knowing and following the rules are only the first steps; an equally important element is the ability to adequately document your complicity. That means organizations in regulated industries (which is fast coming to include almost all of them) can no longer rely on the minimal logging and reporting functions that are built into operating systems and applications, but need comprehensive records that tie into their monitoring solutions.
9: Just the Fax
For many years, we've been hearing that the fax machine is an obsolete artifact and that faxing is dead. While the former might be edging closer to the truth – driven more by the disappearance of landlines than the fax technology itself – the latter is proven wrong every time we encounter a business or government agency that refuses to accept emailed documents, in a world where snail mail travels far too slowly. In 2016, a surprising number of companies and individuals out there, some with good reason and some merely because they're resistant to change, are determined to hang onto their faxes until someone pries them from their cold, dead hands. If you need to deal with organizations that insist on exchanging documents via facsimile, but you don't want to invest in fax machine hardware or maintain the phone lines needed to use them, a viable solution is Internet-based faxing by which you can send and receive faxes online via email.
10: Artificial Intelligence takes center stage
AI has been the holy grail of computing for decades, but until lately it's been mostly a sci-fi dream. Now in 2016, AI-like personal assistant programs and devices are proliferating, with helpful digital "ladies" such as Alexa and the unfortunately named Google Home flying off the shelves at Christmas. It's a consumer trend that is already finding its way into the business world.
Amazon Echo is beginning to infiltrate the business world, and it seems likely that Google Assistant (the new and improved version of Google Now) will follow the same path. Many iPhone users find that Siri enhances their productivity, and Cortana, built into Windows 10, is arguably the AI that was most targeted to the work environment, with Microsoft's focus on the enterprise and Steve Ballmer's vision, which I remember him presenting almost ten years ago at an MVP conference, of a digital assistant that could do everything a secretary or administrative assistant does for a busy executive, and more, for everyone at every level of the corporate ladder.
I won't be at all surprised if Google CEO Sundar Pichai's prediction that the next generation of computing will shift from "mobile first to AI-first" proves to be true. Of course, before AI can become a reliable business tool, its makers still have a lot to learn, as Microsoft's "Tay" chatbot – dubbed one of the top tech failures of 2016 – reminds us.
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