In his last blog post of 2017, David Socha discusses the proliferation of technology platforms across every aspect of IT, OT, data and analytics and considers the lack of a consistent definition of what exactly a platform might be.
Everything’s a platform nowadays, huh? There are Smart Grid Platforms; Smart Metering Platforms; all-encompassing Utility IT Platforms1; Big Data Platforms; Analytics Platforms; IoT Platforms of course; AI Platforms…obviously. In fact I could probably fill my allocated word count for this blog and still not name every variation. But what is a platform? Or perhaps more importantly, what do vendors mean when they talk about platforms? Because that might not be the same thing.
The Truth is Out There
Let’s see if we can make some sense of this whole platform concept and at least have a go at cutting through the marketing doublespeak. And let’s start with trying to define what a (technology) platform actually might be. Techopedia’s definition is a good place to start. It says a platform is “a group of technologies that are used as a base upon which other applications, processes or technologies are developed.”
I can work with that. Take, for example, a Smart Metering Platform. The above definition might suggest such a thing to be a group of technologies that do some undefined number of basic tasks that are likely to be common to a lot of Smart Metering processes. It might not do the more complicated stuff, or stuff that’s specific to your business’ or your regulators’ unique requirements - that would need to be developed on the platform. Or perhaps we don’t need development. Perhaps some of that more complicated stuff might come as optional additional pre-configured apps or modules from the vendor. With me so far?
Well yes David, I hear you say…but what are those common basic tasks? Who gets to define what functionality is basic (ie part of the platform) and what isn’t (ie stuff I have to buy or develop separately)? And how do I know if the platform is going to cover all the things I need it to cover? Who gets to decide the minimum set of functionality allowed before a vendor can call their product a Smart Metering Platform at all? Is there some International Platform Police organisation that I don’t know about that makes sure everyone is conforming to the same set of standards?
Hopefully, you’re starting to see the problem. In the absence of said Platform Police, there is no way to immediately know what a vendor means - or what they’re avoiding telling you - when they proudly introduce their particular Brand X platform to you. Some platforms are comprehensive, proven, flexible, scalable and extremely valuable. My own employer’s Analytics Platform is one of those. But then I would say that, wouldn’t I? Many more platforms are a rough cobbling together of some tools and applications that the vendor has created, procured, inherited in mergers and/or is still working out how to integrate. And they may or may not cover all of your needs.
Deceive, Inveigle, Obfuscate
Here’s where we get to that part about cutting through the marketing doublespeak. It’s absolutely critical to go into a conversation with a platform vendor with eyes wide open. Some platforms are based on data integration and flexible, managed access to that data, creating a...eh…sound platform for all sorts of applications and processes to leverage a single view of an enterprise’s “truth”. Others focus on applications, development toolkits and point-to-point data integration, or can only integrate specific types of data, limiting your view of the business by maintaining (or even creating new) silos of information. Some are tied to vendor-specific ways of developing new front-end apps, limiting your ability to use existing tools your business might already have paid for - and that users know and love and deliver valuable insights with. But each will be called a platform, irrespective of what capabilities they have and what functionality they offer.
I Want to Believe
So how to navigate this ambiguous world of confusion and obfuscation? We all want to believe that the right platform for our needs exists out there somewhere. And also that we can evaluate apparently comparable/competing platforms objectively to come to the right conclusion for our business. In next month’s blog, I’ll propose a set of basic questions…or at least areas for consideration…that can help you to cut through some of the pretty marketing images and over-hyped buzzwords to understand what it really is that your platform vendors of choice are offering you - and what they’re not. See you then.
1 The first one of those I found on the web had pictures of cute robots all over it. I’m not sure what cute robots have to do with Utilities IT, but hey they are cute. And so…modern. Sigh.
About the author:
David Socha is Teradata’s Practice Partner for the Industrial Internet of Things (IoT). He began his career as a hands-on electrical distribution engineer, keeping the lights on in Central Scotland, before becoming a part of ScottishPower’s electricity retail deregulation programme in the late 1990s. After a period in IT management and consulting roles, David joined Teradata to found their International Utilities practice, later also taking on responsibilities in Smart Cities and the wider Industrial IoT sector.
Image credit: 123rf.