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Gitex 2020: Tech industry comes together amid Covid-19

Gitex 2020: Tech industry comes together amid Covid-19

Gitex Technology Week 2020 previewed a tech-led post-Covid future

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Held under a dark cloud of Covid-19, Gitex Technology Week 2020 nonetheless proved the power of technology in helping to overcome challenges brought on by the pandemic.

The usually large global contingent was kept at bay by widespread travel restrictions. In response, organisers, the Dubai World Trade Centre, teamed up with Avaya to host hybrid physical/virtual conferences beamed to audiences in 150 countries. A lot of participants also held physical and cloud demos for the benefit of the thousands locked out.

The success of the hybrid model of the event should provide a template for a post-Covid world. “This is akin to an elastic band that has stretched so far, it’s not going to get back to the original shape,” says Savio Tovar Dias, senior director, Sales Engineering, Avaya International.

“Virtual is going to be a key part of any event moving forward with the potential to boost the reach tenfold,” he adds.

Gitex also provided an ideal, if sombre, platform to evaluate the impact of Covid-19 and the lessons learned.

These past nine months have demonstrated to every business leader the need to prepare for the unexpected. “To be ready for the unknown, you need agile architectures, flexible business models, and the ability to flex up and down as your business demands,” says Dias.

Omar Akar, regional vice president and managing director of Cloud and AI Business Group at Huawei Middle East says Covid-19 delivered a clear message that organisations need to accelerate digital transformation. “Any organisation today that fails to transform and deliver digital services, effective immediately, will lose their market value. And that’s going to happen extremely fast.”

Akar gives the example of fintechs that are threatening large banks because they’re able to deliver new digital services to an eager consumer base. “Being agile and investing in technologies that accelerate the transformation, primarily AI, intelligent vision, and analytics should be key,” he says. The pandemic brought to the fore the importance of remote communication tools such as chatbots as well as customer relationship management, with employees hindered from client meetings, observes Sunil Paul, co-founder and managing director at Finesse Global.

Additionally, technologies that until then seemed niche were quickly elevated into the mainstream. Paul cites the example of blockchain-based contracts that negate the need for physical signatures. And because budgets are under pressure, managed services are the need of the hour. “Many businesses have had to reduce staff numbers including in-house IT teams.”

AI can be developed in ways that will augment all industries and propel socio-economic development.

Public services
The pandemic proved particularly disruptive to the public organisations, who still needed to deliver critical public services to residents and citizens.

Hammad Abdullah Al Hammadi, director of Digital Channels at Abu Dhabi Digital Authority (ADDA) says Covid-19 helped accelerate the delivery of digital government services. “Our customers needed to have services available digitally across all channels to minimise the number of visits to service centres.”

ADDA’s digital platform TAMM brings together 33 government entities in Abu Dhabi to offer unified services.

Hammadi says TAMM’s strategy did not necessarily shift as the original plan was to digitise all public services and deliver them via a single platform.

“However, the pandemic was a push for us to accelerate the onboarding of services onto the platform. Covid-19 allowed us to be more productive since we started to meet virtually; it minimised the time and effort it would usually take to coordinate meetings with other government entities by eliminating face-to-face meetings,” Hammadi says.

Many organisations are reconsidering their workplace strategy, with permanent work-from-home policies now popular. “I strongly believe that widespread remote collaboration will be one of the most important trends to emerge from the pandemic,” says Akar.

Fadi Kanafani, managing director for NetApp in the Middle East says one of the biggest developments of 2020 is the shift towards pay-as-you-go models, which better align expenses with usage and cash flow. “Whatever the industry, public or private, responding to today’s rapid changes in work and social norms demands a new level of flexibility, which the cloud offers – be it private, public, hybrid or a consumption-based model.”

Experts agree that Covid-19 is a wake-up call for businesses to embrace speed and agility in the face of unprecedented disruption. “Undeniably, cloud has played a crucial role in helping businesses gain that flexibility and agility that enable large remote workforces and maintain business continuity. We’ve seen how data and access to this data have helped businesses continue operations even as offices shut,” says Kanafani.

“Businesses must invest now in a cloud-based model to suit their business needs and prepare a path for a sustainable future,” he adds.

Productivity has become imperative in remote working environments. “I have never seen such a focus on productivity before the pandemic. Unified communications and collaboration tools were ‘nice to have’. But today, managing employees’ workloads defining their performance based on outcomes and not monitoring tasks, while automating mundane tasks, have emerged as business imperatives,” says Dias.

Covid-19 is a wake-up call for businesses to embrace speed and agility in the face of unprecedented disruption.
Artificial intelligence
Artificial intelligence was a recurring theme at Gitex 2020. AI has been leveraged for research in Covid-19 vaccine development, to speed up diagnosis, to predict the spread of the disease, and more. “2020 has proven the remarkable benefits of AI applied in sectors such as healthcare and pharmaceuticals, IT and telecoms, energy and logistics by enabling new tools that yield remarkable insights,” says Dr. Mohammed Yaqub, assistant professor at Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence (MBZUAI).

Dr. Yaqub says that while AI has been and will continue to be instrumental in current times as countries work to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, it will also be inherently useful in accelerating solutions for future healthcare, as well as in aiding in the research, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer, heart diseases and other ailments.

“As an exceptionally flexible technology, AI can be developed in ways that will augment all industries and propel socio-economic development. It is the driving force behind the fourth industrial revolution, serving as a key component for intelligent solutions that increase productivity, efficiency, and sustainability, and leading to more proficient industrial outcomes – which, of course, contributes towards the growth of the economy,” Dr. Yaqub says.

MBZUAI is the world’s first graduate-level, research-based AI university. The institution aims to develop AI expertise not only in terms of education for graduate students to become leaders in the field, but by also offering research facilities for experts from around the world.

Kanafani of NetApp says although AI is set to impact various sectors in the future, its applications can already be seen in everyday scenarios in sectors such as healthcare, research, financial services fraud detection, retail purchase predictions, and online customer support interactions.

NetApp’s own AI-powered ONTAP AI platform is helping researchers and healthcare institutions across the region in the fight against the pandemic. “We believe organisations must look also at integrating AI to speed up data movement, get faster and better results, and eliminate bottlenecks at each source – from the edge, core and the cloud,” Kanafani says.

Cloud
Cloud saved numerous businesses from going under during lockdowns. Most participating brands at Gitex were keen to highlight their cloud credentials.

Avaya’s vast product portfolio allows the company to offer on-premise, subscription pay-as-you-go models, managed services, hybrid cloud, or even pure cloud play.

Dias highlighted how the company’s technology has moved about 2.5 million users to work from home in the last eight months or so, translating to a massive 2500-3,000 per cent growth in Avaya’s cloud collaboration platforms. “In such a critical time, we seamlessly enabled our customers to deliver business and experiences to their customers.”

Akar says Huawei is aligned with the cloud-first policy numerous organisations are adopting. “We have one of the strongest cloud platforms worldwide,” he says. “Today, we’re the fastest-growing cloud provider in the world, expanding by triple digits year over year.” Huawei today maintains 45 cloud availability zones that deliver cloud services across the globe as well as more than 2,500 content delivery nodes. Akar says Huawei already has over one million customers on its cloud, including more than 200 financial institutions and 350 government institutions.

“While we are a solid cloud provider with a mature cloud offering, the real value proposition for Huawei is our ability to deliver the end-to-end capability.

“Cloud without next-generation connectivity might not be meaningful, while cloud without edge capability is inadequate. And so being able to couple modern infrastructure, next-generation interconnectivity with cloud digital capabilities is what adds value to our customers,” says Akar.

NetApp showcased a new serverless and storageless solution for containers from Spot by NetApp – which is a new autonomous hybrid cloud volume platform – as well as cloud-based virtual desktop solutions. The platform helps simplify and optimise multicloud management, combining high performance at low cost, says Kanafani.

Cloud without next-generation connectivity might not be meaningful, while cloud without edge capability is inadequate.
Challenges
Regulated industries such as financial services and the public sector face compliance issues when storing data on the cloud. This limitation is now partly being addressed by cloud providers such as AWS and Microsoft who have set up local data centres. Although these were set up pre-Covid, they should help accelerate digital transformation post-pandemic, says Paul of Finesse.

The other major challenge is securing cloud workloads. “Cloud transformation means suddenly exposing relatively secure on-prem data to public cloud platforms where you have no control,” he observes.

“Secondly, remote access to corporate assets using mobile devices from anywhere greatly expands the threat landscape. This is why we coined this new term ‘securing digital transformation’.”

Traditional cybersecurity methodologies that protect the endpoint, network or the perimetre will fail in this new environment, says Paul. “Newer approaches such as zero-trust, micro-segmentation, privileged access management and multi-factor authentication are now the more crucial security parameters,” he adds.

Technology companies have been driven to accelerate innovation in areas such as AI, automation, and cloud to better serve their customers, Dias observes.

Partnerships will be key moving forward. Dias says Avaya has started to significantly open up platforms with APIs and SDKs “to make sure that we are not the only ones innovating and creating, but we are using our partners and our customers to help co-create and innovate with us on those.”

Akar of Huawei says remote collaboration will not only remain a constant fixture in many organisations’ operations but that the space will see continuous innovation in the cloud.

“You’re going to see a lot of AI infusion into collaboration, virtual assistants, transcription, translation, and analytics. Several years down the line, AR, VR and even holograms will take precedence, driven by 5G. The collaboration will also evolve beyond human-to-human to include things,” Akar adds.

Hammadi of ADDA says proactive public services will be readily available in the future. “For example, if the customer is eligible for a certain service, they will be able to acquire the service in the future without actually requesting it.”

Despite obvious challenges, Gitex presented showgoers, both physical and virtual, with a vision of a tech-driven and promising post-Covid future.

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