Beyond cloud computing and Big Data

Today, the world of information technology is somewhat akin to a jigsaw puzzle. Contemporary catchphrases like "cloud computing", "Big Data" and "service-oriented architecture" may be increasingly better understood, but they are no more than...


Today, the world of information technology is somewhat akin to a jigsaw puzzle. Contemporary catchphrases like "cloud computing", "Big Data" and "service-oriented architecture" may be increasingly better understood, but they are no more than pieces of a complex puzzle and they do little to unveil the larger picture.

Nevertheless, three forces appear to be shaping the emerging image of IT.

1. Everything will be distributed

Companies are increasingly reconfiguring their IT architecture from monolithic server-centric environments to more agile service-centric ecosystems. Key to this transformation is the dismantling of the single data centre. Several factors have contributed to make the distribution of enterprise IT across locations and service providers the new normal:

  • The availability of hardware and software as a service provides financial incentive to distribute corporate applications and data with multiple providers;
  • The need to operate inter-company processes by integrating systems with those of suppliers and partners leads to data and process distribution;
  • Integration standards enable the sourcing of common services—like credit verification—from a third party, making building systems faster and cheaper;
  • The need to integrate and utilise external data—data from the web, data from emerging data-as-a-service vendors—is yet another reason;
  • Finally, the sheer volume of data generated by certain industries (such as electric utilities) makes it impractical to capture it in one place for processing.

The distribution of applications and data is not without its technical challenges. For instance, corporate data in the custody of external service providers may actually reside with third party vendors over whom the company has no control. So, as systems increasingly interoperate with external agencies, it’s important that issues of trust and authentication are addressed.

2. Everything will be decoupled

The second undercurrent is the rise of decoupling (the partition of applications and data). Distribution requires decoupling, and decoupling enables distribution. This symbiotic relationship has proved a catalyst for the crumbling of monolithic IT architectures.

In the case of applications, principles for modular design and standards of interoperability have matured and gained broad acceptance. While enterprises have had varying experiences with their investments in SOA, one thing has clearly succeeded - any new business application written today uses service orientation as the de facto approach.

But decoupling applications into services doesn’t go far enough, because it ignores data. Decoupling or partitioning data is not a trivial proposition—and this is the problem that’s at the heart of the current interest in "Big Data". While the relational database has served us well over the decades, existing solutions are very difficult to make distributed.

As a result, a number of new, non-relational data management paradigms have emerged. Collectively called NoSQL (which stands for "not only SQL", the data access used by relational database systems), these databases try to address a number of problems beyond just massive data volumes: managing distributed data, real-time data, multimedia data, metadata and so forth.

As such, Big Data is less about big, and more about managing new kinds of data and dealing with new kinds of data management paradigms.

3. Everything will be analysed

While data is useful, data about data (such as who accessed it, when and from where—metadata) can provide actionable insights. It isn’t surprising, therefore, that metadata is growing faster than the underlying data itself (estimates range from two to 20 times faster).

Metadata analysis is currently used in a wide range of applications. Websites use visitor information to customise offerings. Video footage coupled with the latest face recognition software is being analysed by retailers to predict conversion rates, as well as by security agencies and police forces to spot security threats. Analysis of social networks to gauge consumer sentiment is becoming routine.

The popularity of Facebook adds a whole new dimension to customer analysis. More than two million websites now let you log in using a Facebook account. According to Facebook itself, more than 250 million users log in to third party websites with their Facebook account every month. As a result, when you visit a website you are no longer an anonymous user.

In manufacturing, information from RFID tags helps track goods through the supply chain. In electric utilities, real-time information from smart meters is used to match consumption with generation, optimise the distribution network and create a "smart grid".

Sure, cloud computing, Big Data and SOA may be the buzz of the day, but they all paint a vague and incomplete picture. But this vagueness could be the harbinger of something new, something unfamiliar, something beyond our current vocabulary, something that could change IT forever. And the big picture will most likely be determined by distribution, decoupling and analytics.

Posted by Kishore S. Swaminathan, Accenture's chief scientist