Technology platforms

In December 2017, David Socha discussed the proliferation of technology platforms across every aspect of IT, OT, data and analytics and promised that next time, he’d give some pointers on navigating this confused landscape.

You may remember that last time around, we didn’t get as far as coming to any real conclusion on the definition of a technology platform, simply because…well…it doesn’t matter what we decide, does it? Vendors have always called whatever they sell whatever they think will make you buy it. And everything’s a platform nowadays, huh? Take this example: While I still subscribe to the definition of a platform we used last time around, ie:

a group of technologies that are used as a base upon which other applications, processes or technologies are developed.”

...others are determined to convince us that a platform has nothing to do with technology at all and is in fact a business model. And hey, who is to say they’re wrong?

So how to navigate this ambiguous world of confusion and obfuscation? First, let’s assume we are indeed still focusing only on technology platforms. Now, you may not be the IT expert in your business. And if that’s the case, you shouldn’t need to be either. I get that. But so does the vendor. And at times they can…eh…gloss over a few things that it might have been more useful for you to know before you do engage with your IT colleagues and ask them to help you deliver some new value for your business.

With that in mind, let me propose three areas for consideration and questions. There’s more to it than this, of course.  But I hope these three 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 are offering you - and what they’re not.

Coverage

At the simplest level, ask your vendor which key groups or layers of components their platform provides. Is it just a suite of useful applications and software development kits (SDKs) so you can make more applications? If so, I’d suggest that what you have there isn’t a platform at all. It’s a suite of applications. You’d be surprised how many vendors will fall at this hurdle.

Of course, a suite of useful applications may well be attractive to you. And that’s fine. But let’s consider what it is that actually makes those applications useful. It’s data. Does the platform also include comprehensive data acquisition and processing tools and capabilities?  In other words, will the platform ensure that the right data are sourced, processed and securely delivered to its applications at the right time and in the format they require? Or do you need to do that yourself?

Finally on this topic, does your chosen platform include appropriate data storage and curation? Many don’t. Many will expect you to already have your data in an ecosystem that allows fast access to already curated data. Without it, their platform may still be able to function, but data may be sourced from point-to-point integrations, increasing costs; multiplying the likelihood of duplication and errors; and reducing performance. Or, there will be an expensive Change Request on the project to deliver said data ecosystem.  This is perhaps the single most common “misunderstanding” encountered when investing in a technology platform.

Openness, connectivity and interoperability

Now let’s think about the fact that you might not only want to use the applications that come in the box, or that you can develop with that neat SDK. Does your vendor’s platform allow your existing applications to take advantage of the platform’s infrastructure too?

Can your Data Scientists apply Open Source analytics tools to the data in the platform, to complement those the vendor may have provided? And what of cross-functional analytics? Let’s illustrate this issue with the familiar example of Smart Meters, as I have before. Can you quickly, easily and regularly extract Smart Meter data from your platform to create new insights across a wider environment including, say, billing and geospatial data from other sources? Or is the data in your new platform now stuck there forever, next-to-impossible to extract without specialist skills?

Real scalability

Do you know the data volumes your platform needs to be able to handle? Perhaps more importantly, do you know how much it may have to handle in the near future, as digitalization and the IoT deliver unprecedented amounts of data to the enterprise. Again, it may well not be your role to know such things. And that’s OK. However, if you’re the business user assessing the capabilities of a new platform, make sure you - or a colleague better placed to ask the difficult questions - do ask searching questions about scalability.

Any platform vendor should be able to demonstrate lightning-fast responses on small, or even relatively large test data sets.  But, sticking with the Smart Metering theme: Enedis are rolling out 35 million Smart Meters across France. TEPCO are rolling out 27 million across the Tokyo area. That’s a lot of data. IoT platforms may have to be able to handle even more, as more and more sensors send back their data to the enterprise. And what of those cross-functional analytics platforms, potentially looking across all of that data? Scalability, scalability, scalability.

Over to you

So, should you find yourself talking with a platform vendor any time soon and it seems they might have something that could be of use to your business, I hope you’ll consider the three lines of questioning I’ve outlined. First, in a simple three-layer model, does the platform deliver at the application, data processing and the data storage & curation levels?  Second, is it open, accessible and interoperable, or a closed shop? Third, does it scale? I mean really scale?

If you can get the answers you need to these questions, it’s a fair bet that you’re on the route to securing a platform that could deliver what you thought it might when you read that first marketing headline or heard the first elevator pitch. If you can’t…well, don’t say I didn’t warn you!