March 21, 2013

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A Real-Time Platform for Business

My Simple Life

You’ve all been here. Another day in the life of a busy professional, wrapping up meetings on one side of the country and heading to the airport for your journey back home on the other side. I recently had to be in San Francisco for business. I saw and accepted the meeting invitation on my mobile phone as soon as it was sent, and proceeded to plan my trip and book my flight right then and there from my phone. From that point on, my entire trip was facilitated by a mobile device, and managed in real-time. My journey home from San Francisco to New York was “normal.” I received a text update from the airline that my flight was delayed several hours as soon as the delay happened, allowing me the time to re-write a presentation on my MacBook and catch up on the day’s breaking news on my phone before going to the airport.

I exchanged numerous emails and documents with colleagues from my iPhone, checked-in to my flight while in the cab, received my mobile boarding pass to go through security, used FaceTime to video chat with my family before I boarded my plane, and accessed several apps to find somewhere to pick up dinner after arriving back home in New York. The information I needed to make this journey and complete these actions was available at my fingertips, all the way down to deciding whether to pack my jacket in my suitcase or wear it on the plane, based on the forecast weather in New York at the revised time of my arrival.

Everything about my trip probably sounds familiar to you. We barely even notice the constant flow of real-time information from our mobile devices as we connect with people and businesses to give and receive the data we need each and every single day. I was able to continually re-optimize my journey home and make a series of dependent decisions thanks to the constantly up-to-date information I had access to through a variety of sources. Turns out, my “simple” life is actually quite “sophisticated.”

Business in Silos

So why do I mention this? In a dramatic comparison to the ease with which I used such technology to perform multiple activities while traveling, is the paradox of a corporate world that in many respects lags behind. Despite the incredible progress that has been made in the way consumers use real-time data (all day, every day, for everything), businesses, by comparison, remain relatively un-sophisticated.

Businesses still operate in silos.  Even the most ‘integrated’ enterprise platforms such as SAP Business Suite store the information needed to monitor, manage, and optimize key business processes at best in a modular fashion and at worst in a different database.  Users are forced to access multiple ‘transactions’ or even ‘applications’ to make important but routine decisions such as how best to allocate inbound inventory to pending outbound orders in a fast moving supply chain.

It gets more complicated.  No company I have worked with operates all its business processes on a single enterprise platform.  Utility companies, who often use Oracle or SAP platforms for back office functions as well as customer care and billing, typically run smart meter data management, outage management and network information systems provided by a variety of 3rd parties all running on separate databases.

So what is the impact of this data fragmentation with regard to business optimization?  Let’s consider the example of a CPG company looking to optimize the way it handles a large amount of perishable inventory rapidly approaching the end of its shelf-life, at which point it would have to be scrapped and a loss transferred to the P&L.  Today, most organizations will make a simple price reduction to try and minimize the loss.  There is nothing wrong with this approach, the new price reflecting a sense of urgency driven by the quantity of un-allocated inventory and the remaining shelf life; but with improved access to multiple streams of real-time data, could this process be made a little more “sophisticated”?

Rather than issue a one-time price reduction, could price be constantly adjusted automatically based upon the quantity of stock and the associated shelf life remaining? Could customers who are regular and/or major buyers of the SKU be proactively and automatically alerted to the price reduction? Could the reduction in price differ based upon the perceived lifetime value of the customer?  Is there significant goodwill to be generated by giving the inventory free of charge to an important customer?  How would the targeting of retail customers change if you had visibility into the current inventory of that SKU?

The answer to all of those questions is, of course, yes. But to do so would require a far more comprehensive ‘process-centric’ and real-time view of data than is typically available today, and in the case of the last question, such a view would need to extend beyond company boundaries and across multiple business partners.

Historically, companies have undertaken large and complicated Enterprise Data Warehouse projects to aggregate data from multiple sources and provide a more ‘process-centric’ view. However, the latency of this data, resulting from complicated ETL processes often running in batch mode, combined with an inability to analyze the resulting large volumes of data in real-time, has meant that this approach has never really lent itself to the type of real-time business optimization that companies now seek.

The latest in-memory technology could change this. It has the capability to create a real-time platform for business.

The Real-Time Platform for Business

So what might this real-time platform look like?

 

Real-Time Platform Architecture

Data Source Layer – comprised of applications, internal and external to a company, from which data will be sourced to deliver a comprehensive ‘process-centric’ view.

Data & Computing Layer – comprised of a replication server (to handle real-time replication of data from multiple source systems and databases), an in-memory database (to store and analyze these large volumes of data in real-time), and an event processor (to identify and initiate action on identified patterns and trends).

Semantic Layer – comprised of a series of data models that translates multiple source data models, often highly modular in nature, into the comprehensive ‘process-centric’ view.

Visualization & Application Layer – comprised of a series of analytical toolsets, analytical applications, and mobile applications to be deployed to the business.

Such a platform would provide the answers for a CPG company seeking to maximize their return on ageing and perishable inventory.  It could enable electric utilities to combine information across customer care and billing systems, social media, outage management, smart meter, and network information systems and for the first time start balancing not just supply but demand in real-time across their entire customer base.

So, it’s a platform with the potential to change the way companies ‘do business’, but what makes this any less complicated than a large scale Enterprise Data Warehouse project?

Eat the Elephant in Bite-Size Chunks

To build an entire real-time platform would be no insignificant undertaking. It would be an enormous task that could take many years to complete, a timescale unacceptable in the fast-moving and highly competitive markets companies find themselves in today.

It is, however, a task that can be shared. Shared by technology providers such as SAP and Oracle who are shifting their focus from application development to platform development, and shared by implementation partners like HCL who will augment their efforts and develop the analytical and mobile applications deployed to the business users.

It is also a task that can be broken up into a series of building blocks whereby the specific data sources, data models, analytical and mobile applications associated with the highest priority business use-case are delivered en masse before moving to the next use-case.

Closing

In markets that are increasingly global, competitive and dynamic, companies are looking for ways to overtake and stay ahead of the competition. The real-time platform for business will not only change the game for them today but will provide a platform for sustained innovation and differentiation tomorrow. Imagine when businesses achieve the level of real-time interaction and connectivity of our simple lives; by equipping them with those characteristics through a real-time platform, the opportunities will be almost limitless.