While 2008 has been a tumultuous year in business, there have also been a series of developing trends that are quietly transforming the traditional strategies and the standard operating procedures of IT. Here are the five trends that having the biggest impact.

5. The rise of ultra-cheap PCs

A variety of “Netbooks” from leading PC vendors brought sub-$500 laptops to the masses in 2008. These low-cost, small-form-factor machines — pioneered by the OLPC XO and Asus Eee PC — were originally aimed at emerging markets. However, consumers from the U.S., Europe, and Japan snapped them up in surprisingly large numbers.

Because of the portability of Netbooks, a lot of business travelers have adopted them for the convenience factor. In many cases, these machines aren’t being deployed by IT but are being purchased by employees and then used for business. With the budget pressures of the current global recession, you could see IT start to co-opt these low-cost machines for some functions as an easy way to save money on capex costs, especially when Intel’s Atom processor comes to the desktop in 2009. That will usher in the “Nettop” (see Intel spec), a compact, low-power form factor that will result in sub-$200 PCs and thin clients.

4. Green IT meets energy savings

Over the past several years, “Green IT” has been one of the most overhyped issues in the IT world. To be brutally honest, they were few IT leaders outside of California who spent much time thinking about it. That changed in 2008. Partially due to mounting evidence that humans might truly be impacting the earth’s climate, but more directly related to rising energy costs and fears of impending energy shortages, many IT leaders have now moved energy conservation to their priority lists.

Looming government regulations on energy use and carbon dioxide emissions are another powerful motivator. All of these concerns are motivating vendors to release products to meet the growing demand for energy conservation. You can see this in the low-power chips coming out of Intel and AMD, the energy-efficient servers from HP, IBM, and Dell, and software such as Verdiem that can enable IT to save the business thousands of dollars per month by centrally managing power policies on enterprise PCs.

3. Offshoring, H1Bs, and the IT labor deficit

No topics will get a quicker rise out of U.S. IT workers than the issues of offshoring and H1B Visas. U.S. techies argue that high-wage IT jobs are being shipped to places such as India and that foreign workers are being invited to take U.S. tech jobs because they will accept lower salaries than American workers.

Meanwhile, employers and IT leaders claim that the effects of H1Bs and offshoring have been greatly exaggerated by the media and that they continue to have difficulty finding enough engineers and IT specialists with the right skills to fill all of their open positions.

Both camps can’t be right, so what’s the truth? Unfortunately, the data isn’t clear. You can find legitimate statistics to support both conclusions. Nevertheless, what is clear is that there is a major disconnect between employers and IT workers, and that the skills it takes to succeed in IT are in a constant state of flux.

2. Virtualization and utility computing

Virtualization solutions have been in play in IT for decades. But, the current trend toward virtualizing servers and storage in the data center is revolutionizing IT management and IT economics because it is focused on three goals: 1.) streamlining server deployment and maintenance, 2.) decreasing energy costs, and 3.) building a much more flexible IT infrastructure.

This current wave of virtualization is also laying the groundwork for the next stage in IT and data centers: Utility computing.  This involves buying server and storage capacity rather than physical hardware. It is also a flexible infrastructure that can scale up and down based on user activity and resource needs, all powered by virtualization.

Under this model, many small and medium businesses will no longer operate their own server rooms or data centers but will instead buy server capacity from utility computing providers. And many large enterprises will use utility computing providers to buy extra capacity during peak times. Microsoft and Google plan to go after this market in a big way. Both of them are currently building massive data centers in multiple locations around the U.S. and across the globe in anticipation of this market exploding over the next 5-10 years.

1. IT’s opportunity in the economic tsunami

During the last global recession in the early 2000s, IT took a major hit in terms of both headcount and annual budgets. That was because many companies had overbuilt their IT infrastructures and placed too much blind faith in IT projects. Today’s IT departments tend to be leaner and much more ROI-focused, and in most places technology is even more integrated into business processes and operations than ever before.

As a result, in response to the current global recession many IT leaders are making the case to their chief executives to let them help bring down company costs by using technology to help automate and streamline tasks. This was reflected in the Society of Information Management’s 2008 Survey.

Jerry Luftman, the SIM director who lead the survey, said, “Companies are looking at IT as a lever to cut costs in other parts of the business… Here is IT’s chance to shine. Here’s their chance to make lemonade out of lemons.”