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Bringing together digital, cloud and big data
by Robert Hillard

History is replete with examples where ideas are launched with great fanfare and yet fail while subsequent iterations of very similar ideas are hugely successful.  The difference between a failed good idea and a success is often only a matter of a few subtle differences.

It can be argued that at any time there are just a few key trends which define technology support for business transformation and innovation in the industry as a whole.  In the past we have dealt with network trends that have resulted in better communications, infrastructure trends which have delivered standardisation and technology management trends that have given us a focus on project outcomes.

In each case, the wave that saw these ideas come through was preceded by iterations of similar concepts that simply failed to gain popular support.

The three big trends that we are dealing with in Information Technology at the moment are: digital disruption, cloud and big data.  All three tend to get discussed in isolation but are, in fact, closely related.  As much as anything, all three reflect the maturing of IT to join other forms of technology where subtle ergonomics, form and design are more important than a simple inventory of features and functions.

Digital is a business trend

Digital technologies are those that contain discrete (discontinuous) elements or values.  Contrary to popular misconception, digital does not mean online activities.  The opposite of digital is analogue where elements are not independent, such as business processes that cannot be isolated.

Digital business isolates individual business functions and their supply through business services, often through B2C or B2B online channels.  Once functions are isolated they can be recombined in new and innovative ways to create disruption.  Digital disruption.  Examples of this disruption include the recombination of supply chains, retail, financial products, telecommunications and even quite traditional manufacturing and mining activities.

The principles and technologies of digital business are not new, the industry has developed service oriented architecture (SOA) approaches over many years with exactly the same goal.  What has changed this time is subtle.  Rather than relying on standards for interfacing, digital approaches are relying on market forces to ensure that individual components are able to effectively exchange information.  Once again, market self-interest is trumping central planning!

Cloud as a power station

While the move towards cloud is complex, it is certainly not new.  Bureau computing through the 1980s (and even earlier) was just as much a cloud capability as today’s services.  With the success of the Internet people have been envisioning a move away from owning infrastructure to combining services online for over a decade.

When people talk about cloud, they often refer to the utility model.  The argument being that the move is inevitable.  After all, no-one generates their own electricity right?  In fact, the utility industry knows full well that electricity production is going a full circle with first solar and now increasing gas generation of electricity moving into the home.  Similarly, many proponents of cloud argue that it is the continuation of trend towards thin client applications, but similarly software architects are very aware that the rise of mobile apps has seen the return of the thick client with a vengeance!

Centralisation versus decentralization and thick versus thin are simply part of the cyclical nature of IT. Cloud is much more important.  It is the vehicle via which discrete services can be combined and delivered.  Whether it is the embedding of payment services in ecommerce solutions, CRM for call centres or the provision of storage of photos for home users the really interesting trend is how these services can be combined in new and commercially viable ways.

Big data is an expression of freedom from technology

Big data leverages the digital bread crumbs from all of the new services that cloud and digital, combined, enable and builds on the freedom that organisations are gaining by not having to own or build everything themselves.

When businesses have to own everything, they naturally try to define it in enormous detail.  With enterprises that are tightly interconnected (or naturally analogue) enterprise consistency and standards are paramount – hence the focus on master data.  As elements of the business become discrete (digital) they can be allowed a level of independence and their data is driven by an internal and external market rather than standards.  The result is big data (see my previous post, It’s time for a new definition of big data) which is as different from structured data as databases are from unstructured content.

Big data existed in the past, but without digital and cloud enterprises were reluctant to set it free for fear of losing control of already complex business processes.

User experience is everything

None of digital, cloud or big data are new.  What we are seeing is that these technologies are supporting each other in a way that is making them practical and the market is learning to use them in a way that fits with day-to-day business and consumer activities.

Digital business makes sense in a world that is used to sharing big data across organisational boundaries.  Cloud is important in a digital world that is not afraid of sharing or migrating whole business functions across boundaries and borders.  Big data’s digital bread crumbs rely on the cloud to free-up the organisation from having to maintain control of all information definitions.

Above all else, these trends are being picked-up because they are being manifested in solutions that are easy to understand and use.  Without app stores, payment services, CRMs and analytics tools which reflect the way people actually want to structure their businesses none of these trends would be taking hold.

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