The next big thing: It’s a subject that keeps analysts, entrepreneurs and computer science majors up at night. But what on earth is it going to be? For every one that captures the popular imagination and generates a new crop of billionaires, hundreds of others fall by the wayside.

Yet the folks quoted below have gone out on a limb and shared their thoughts on that elusive next big thing. Don’t be too hard on them.

1. Solid State Disk Arrays

First, there were solid state drives (SSDs) you could add to an array at a heavy cost premium to achieve a boost in performance. EMC, for example, offered customers one or two SSDs inside a Symmetrix array. Then flash prices plummeted, and a horde of startups rushed onto the scene. The result is a wealth of innovative ways to make flash run faster, cheaper and longer. Now we are even seeing ventures asking the audacious question, “Why even bother with hard disks in an array? Make it all flash.”

Scott Dietzen, CEO of Pure Storage, is one such advocate.

“With the emergence of solid-state vendors who are delivering on the promise of flash performance for less than the cost of disk-centric arrays, all solid-state storage arrays are poised to become the next big thing in storage,” he said.

The temptation to deploy flash storage in the data center already exists for organizations that run performance-heavy applications. However, Dietzen claims that all-flash storage can now deliver ten-times better throughput and latency for random I/O and about 2.5-times better throughput for sequential I/O compared with spinning disk.

“All-solid state storage arrays are currently delivering performance as well as 5X or greater power and space efficiency versus mechanical disk and at a total cost that is competitive with shared disk arrays,” said Dietzen.

2. IBM

IBM becoming the next big thing? Mike Karp, an analyst at PtakNoel & Associates, certainly thinks so, particularly in mid-tier data centers.

“IBM is heavily committing to become a major presence in the mid-tier in every segment of the company, shifting from their traditional focus which is been heavily tilted towards the enterprise,” said Karp. “This will become very apparent in hardware and management software for both servers and storage. Expect IBM to engage heavily with its partners and to begin a serious effort to make mid-tier business its largest and most profitable revenue stream.”

3. Tape In The Cloud

Molly Rector, executive vice president of product management and worldwide marketing at SpectraLogic, is understandably a big fan of tape. But she takes it a stage further by proclaiming tape will become an integral part of the cloud.

“Tape will become a best practice in cloud storage infrastructures this year, as companies continue to learn lessons from unfortunate events, such as the Amazon cloud crash, which resulted in lost data for customers,” said Rector. “In 2012, therefore, tape will become the next big thing in cloud storage, cloud backup and cloud archiving.”

Why not disk? Tape, she said, is far better suited to managing large amounts of data, and it will help providers overcome hurdles in an online high availability environment in a more cost-efficient manner than disk.

4. Performance Quality Of Service (QoS)

Kelly Long, chief technology officer, NexGen Storage, has a different take. He said he believes performance quality of service (QoS) will be the thing. Why? For decades, storage vendors have provided tools and capabilities to manage capacity more efficiently but have largely ignored performance. With storage performance QoS, storage performance becomes a measurable resource that can be provisioned, managed and guaranteed just like storage capacity.

“When this is done inside a policy framework where administrators can assign the importance of workloads, and assure that the most important workloads get their performance first, performance quality can be guaranteed,” said Long. “Performance QoS will become a ‘must have’ for virtualized environments where the performance of each application impacts every other application on the system, and where more and more customers are virtualizing their applications.”

5. Active Archives

Big data often seems to be front and center when people contemplate the next storage sensation. Dave Thomson, Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing for QStar Technologies, said he sees the need to store digital content at the petabyte level and beyond as having taken traditional storage architectures to the breaking point.

“Big data, back up and protection, data preservation, compliance, data center environmentals and the explosion of unstructured data are all driving the need for more advanced storage capabilities,” he said. “Active archives are becoming the next big thing in storage for companies that regularly manage high-volume digital assets or face exponential data growth.”

As a result, software, tape and disk vendors are banding together to combine their technologies to solve these evolving. The Active Archive Alliance is one such effort.

6. Convergence

Convergence of technologies rarely gets anyone too excited. When VoIP came along, many tried to get people jazzed about the combination of voice and data on one line. But it was a tough sell. The technology gradually gained ground, but it didn’t create too many ripples on prime time.

The latest convergence play is networking and storage networking on a shared platform — with virtualization being added into the mix so that the servers, networking gear, storage hardware and everything else interacted seamlessly and most importantly in a simple and effortless manner for those running IT.

“A big trend is the continued path to converged infrastructure, also affectionately referred to as data center in a box,” said Moosa Matariyeh, a solution architect for storage at CDW. “Consolidation, simplification and streamlining of the entire data center — including the storage — will continue into 2012 as IT staffs remain lean and projects continue to pile up.”

Greg Schulz, an analyst at StorageIO Group, concurs. But he adds an extra element — metrics and reporting.

“Beyond today’s buzzword bingo darlings (e.g., cloud, virtualization, SSD, dedupe and big data) the next round of hot topics will include metrics and reporting that spans across servers, storage, networks, cloud computer and virtualization,” he said.