One of the top priorities for me at large trade shows like Interop — with 18,000 attendees and 500 vendors — is to try to sniff out big IT trends. I look at the booths that are getting the most traffic, the sessions that appear to be the most crowded, the topics that get the quickest rise out of attendees, and the buzz phrases coming out of the lips of the most people.

Here are the top four trends that I identified at Interop Las Vegas 2008.

4. Holistic manageability

Okay, no one was actually using this phrase at Interop. I just made it up. I needed something to describe the fact that there’s a demand for infrastructure management tools that take holistic view of IT operations. This is a reaction against the current climate in which a lot of IT shops have a plethora of tools — each a silo unto itself — to measure, manage, and report on the various pieces of the infrastructure. This can result in confusion, overlap, and lots of different software agents running on the same servers and systems.

What IT managers want instead is a single dashboard for viewing, creating reports, and — whenever possible — implementing configuration changes. Splunk is grooming its IT search platform to meet this demand. Microsoft is moving in this direction with Forefront and System Center. This approach is the infrastructure management equivalent of consolidating corporate reports with Business Intelligence (BI) software instead of relying on a scattered network of Excel reports and Web-based dashboards.

3. Supporting a decentralized workforce

At Interop, one vendor told me that 70% of all employees now work outside of the corporate headquarters. Another vendor told me that number is actually up to 80%. One representative of a very large IT company said that it recently moved into a new headquarters and that the employee-to-workstation ratio is now 4-to-1 (up from 1.5-to-1). That’s because they now have a lot more mobile employees and they actively encourage employees to work from home during times they don’t need to come into the office.

There were a number of technologies taking center stage in order to support an ever larger number of remote offices, telecommuters, and road warriors. One is fixed mobile convergence, which is aimed at allowing employees to use a dual-mode phone to connect over the Wi-Fi network at the corporate office (or their home) and then to connect over the cellular network when not on a trusted Wi-Fi network. FMC also allows employees to consolidate phone numbers and voicemail inboxes.

Another technology for enabling a decentralized workforce is what I call “WAN caching.” You’ll hear it called WAN optimization, WAN acceleration, and a number of other marketing terms, but the speed burst comes primarily from caching large files so that they aren’t being sent over the WAN multiple times.

2. Data center consolidation and centralization

Sun Microsystems recently consolidated 500 racks of servers down to 65. IBM is in the process of consolidating 4,000 servers into 30 mainframes. Hewlett-Packard is currently consolidating 85 data centers down to six. Those are three of the most well-publicized data center consolidations, but every direction you look in IT right now you can find a company doing a big squeeze on a data center. At Gartner’s data center conference, 94% of 735 respondents reported that they were planning, had completed, or were in the process of doing a data center consolidation.

The forces driving this trend are cost savings, energy conservation, IT simplification, and centralization. The last factor might seem to contradict the previous issue of a decentralized workforce but, in fact, it actually supports it. As the location of workers is less certain and more fluid, it makes more sense to centralize services so that the workers can get a similar experience no matter where they are located.

Some of the technologies supporting this trend are server virtualization, storage virtualization, utility computing, managed services, and Software-as-a-Service (SaaS).

1. Green IT and “greenwashing”

The most talked about theme at this Interop — by a couple touchdowns — was Green IT. If I had any doubt before Interop that IT managers considered Green IT a serious priority and not a flowery ideal, then those doubts were thrown out the window last week.

While most IT managers used to never even see the company’s power bill — let alone be tasked to measure and conserve energy usage — it was clear from a lot of attendees that is changing quickly and dramatically. I was also surprised to see how many IT leaders are anticipating the arrival of a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions that will also change the way they do business. As it turned out, energy conservation, carbon emissions, and dealing with electronic waste were three major Green IT themes at the EnergyCamp unconference at Interop, especially the first two because they could potentially have major ramifications for IT.

It was also clear that nearly ever vendor had a pitch, angle, or spin to explain how their product was an energy saver or an asset to companies concerned about Green IT. In fact, this theme was so prevalent that attendees and established green vendors started calling it “greenwashing” (as in green brainwashing). There was definitely a lot of “greenwashing” going on, and I expect to see a lot more at upcoming IT events.