Big Time — Elements of Data Size in Scaling

I’ve run into additional questions about scalability.  It is significant to understand the concept in terms of assessing software against data size, since there are actually various aspect of approaching the issue.

Unlike situations where data is already sorted and structured as part of the core functionality of the software service being provided, this is in dealing in an environment where there are many third-party software “tools” that put data into proprietary silos.  These act as barriers to optimizing data use and gaining corporate intelligence.  The goal here is to apply in real terms the concept that the customers generating the data (or stakeholders who pay for the data) own the data and should have full use of it across domains.  In project management and corporate governance this is an essential capability.

For run-of-the-mill software “tools” that are focused on solving one problem, this often is interpreted as just selling a lot more licenses to a big organization.  “Sure we can scale!” is code for “Sure, I’ll sell you more licenses!”  They can reasonably make this assertion, particularly in client-server or web environments, where they can point to the ability of the database system on which they store data to scale.  This also comes with, usually unstated, the additional constraint that their solution rests on a proprietary database structure.  Such responses, through, are a form of sidestepping the question, nor is it the question being asked.  Thus, it is important for those acquiring the right software to understand the subtleties.

A review of what makes data big in the first place is in order.  The basic definition, which I outlined previously, came from NASA in describing data that could not be held in local memory or local storage.  Hardware capability, however, continues to grow exponentially, so that what is big data today is not big data tomorrow.  But in handling big data, it then becomes incumbent on software publishers to drive performance to allow their customers to take advantage of the knowledge contained in these larger data sets.

The elements that determine the size of data are:

a.  Table size

b.  Row or Record size

c.  Field size

d.  Rows per table

e.  Columns per table

f.  Indexes per table

Note the interrelationships of these elements in determining size.  Thus, recently I was asked how many records are being used on the largest tables being accessed by a piece of software.  That is fine as shorthand, but the other elements add to the size of the data that is being accessed.  Thus, a set of data of say 800K records may be just as “big” as one containing 2M records because of the overall table size of fields, and the numbers of columns and indices, as well as records.  Furthermore, this question didn’t take into account the entire breadth of data across all tables.

Understanding the definition of data size then leads us to understanding the nature of software scaling.  There are two aspects to this.

The first is the software’s ability to presort the data against the database in such as way as to ensure that latency–the delay in performance when the data is loaded–is minimized.  The principles applied here go back to database management practices back in the day when organizations used to hire teams of data scientists to rationalize data that was processed in machine language–especially when it used to be stored in ASCII or, for those who want to really date themselves, EBCDIC, which were incoherent by today’s generation of more human-readable friendly formats.

Quite simply, the basic steps applied has been to identify the syntax, translate it, find its equivalents, and then sort that data into logical categories that leverage database pointers.  What you don’t want the software to do is what used to be done during the earliest days of dealing with data, which was smaller by today’s standards, of serially querying ever data element in order to fetch only what the user is calling.  Furthermore, it also doesn’t make much sense to deal with all data as a Repository of Babel to apply labor-intensive data mining in non-relational databases, especially in cases where the data is well understood and fairly well structured, even if in a proprietary structure.  If we do business in a vertical where industry standards in data apply, as in the use of the UN/CEFACT XML convention, then much of the presorting has been done for us.  In addition, more powerful industry APIs (like OLE DB and ODBC) that utilize middleware (web services, XML, SOAP, MapReduce, etc.) multiply the presorting capabilities of software, providing significant performance improvements in accessing big data.

The other aspect is in the software’s ability to understand limitations in data communications hardware systems.  This is a real problem, because the backbone in corporate communication systems, especially to ensure security, is still largely done over a wire.  The investments in these backbones is usually categorized as a capital investment, and so upgrades to the system are slow.  Furthermore, oftentimes backbone systems are embedded in physical plant building structures.  So any software performance is limited by the resistance and bandwidth of wiring.  Thus, we live in a world where hardware storage and processing is doubling every 12-18 months, and software is designed to better leverage such expansion, but the wires over which data communication depends remains stuck in the past–constrained by the basic physics of CAT 6 or Fiber Optic cabling.

Needless to say, software manufacturers who rely on constant communications with the database will see significantly degraded performance.  Some software publishers who still rely on this model use the “check out” system, treating data like a lending library, where only one user or limited users can access the same data.  This, of course, reduces customer flexibility.  Strategies that are more discrete in handling data are the needed response here until day-to-day software communications can reap the benefits of physical advancements in this category of hardware.  Furthermore, organizations must understand that the big Cloud in the sky is not the answer, since it is constrained by the same physics as the rest of the universe–with greater security risks.

All of this leads me to a discussion I had with a colleague recently.  He opened his iPhone and did a query in iTunes for an album.  In about a second or so his query selected the artist and gave a list of albums–all done without a wire connection.  “Why can’t we have this in our industry?” he asked.  Why indeed?  Well, first off, Apple iTunes has sorted its data to optimize performance with its app, and it is performed within a standard data stream and optimized for the Apple iOS and hardware.  Secondly, the variables of possible queries in iTunes are predefined and tied to a limited and internally well-defined set of data.  Thus, the data and application challenges are not equivalent as found in my friend’s industry vertical.  For example, aside from the challenges of third party data normalization and rationalization, iTunes is not dealing with dynamic time-phased or trending data that requires multiple user updates to reflect changes using predictive analytics which is then served to different classes of users in a highly secure environment.  Finally, and most significantly, Apple spent more on that system than the annual budget of my friend’s organization.  In the end his question was a good one, but in discussing this it was apparent that just saying “give me this” is a form of magical thinking and hand waving.  The devil is in the details, though I am confident that we will eventually get to an equivalent capability.

At the end of the day IT project management strategy must take into account the specific needs of classes of users in making determinations of scaling.  What this means is a segmented approach: thick-client users, compartmentalized local installs with subsets of data, thin-client, and web/mobile or terminal services equivalents.  The practical solution is still an engineered one that breaks the elephant into digestible pieces that lean forward to leveraging advances in hardware, database, and software operating environments.  These are the essential building blocks to data optimization and scaling.

I Can See Clearly Now — Knowledge Discovery in Databases, Data Scalability, and Data Relevance

I recently returned from a travel and much of the discussion revolved around the issues of scalability and the use of data.  What is clear is that the conversation at the project manager level is shifting from a long-running focus on reports and metrics to one focused on data and what can be learned from it.  As with any technology, information technology exploits what is presented before it.  Most recently, accelerated improvements in hardware and communications technology has allowed us to begin to collect and use ever larger sets of data.

The phrase “actionable” has been thrown around quite a bit in marketing materials, but what does this term really mean?  Can data be actionable?  No.  Can intelligence derived from that data be actionable?  Yes.  But is all data that is transformed into intelligence actionable?  No.  Does it need to be?  No.

There are also kinds and levels of intelligence, particularly as it relates to organizations and business enterprises.  Here is a short list:

a. Competitive intelligence.  This is intelligence derived from data that informs decision makers about how their organization fits into the external environment, further informing the development of strategic direction.

b. Business intelligence.  This is intelligence derived from data that informs decision makers about the internal effectiveness of their organization both in the past and into the future.

c. Business analytics.  The transformation of historical and trending enterprise data used to provide insight into future performance.  This includes identifying any underlying drivers of performance, and any emerging trends that will manifest into risk.  The purpose is to provide sufficient early warning to allow risk to be handled before it fully manifests, therefore keeping the effort being measured consistent with the goals of the organization.

Note, especially among those of you who may have a military background, that what I’ve outlined is a hierarchy of information and intelligence that addresses each level of an organization’s operations:  strategic, operational, and tactical.  For many decision makers, translating tactical level intelligence into strategic positioning through the operational layer presents the greatest challenge.  The reason for this is that, historically, there often has been a break in the continuity between data collected at the tactical level and that being used at the strategic level.

The culprit is the operational layer, which has always been problematic for organizations and those individuals who find themselves there.  We see this difficulty reflected in the attrition rate at this level.  Some individuals cannot successfully make this transition in thinking. For example, in the U.S. Army command structure when advancing from the battalion to the brigade level, in the U.S. Navy command structure when advancing from Department Head/Staff/sea command to organizational or fleet command (depending on line or staff corps), and in business for those just below the C level.

Another way to look at this is through the traditional hierarchical pyramid, in which data represents the wider floor upon which each subsequent, and slightly reduced, level is built.  In the past (and to a certain extent this condition still exists in many places today) each level has constructed its own data stream, with the break most often coming at the operational level.  This discontinuity is then reflected in the inconsistency between bottom-up and top-down decision making.

Information technology is influencing and changing this dynamic by addressing the main reason for the discontinuity existing–limitations in data and intelligence capabilities.  These limitations also established a mindset that relied on limited, summarized, and human-readable reporting that often was “scrubbed” (especially at the operational level) as it made its way to the senior decision maker.  Since data streams were discontinuous, there were different versions of reality.  When aspects of the human equation are added, such as selection bias, the intelligence will not match what the data would otherwise indicate.

As I’ve written about previously in this blog, the application of Moore’s Law in physical computing performance and storage has pushed software to greater needs in scaling in dealing with ever increasing datasets.  What is defined as big data today will not be big data tomorrow.

Organizations, in reaction to this condition, have in many cases tended to simply look at all of the data they collect and throw it together into one giant pool.  Not fully understanding what the data may say, a number of ad hoc approaches have been taken.  In some cases this has caused old labor-intensive data mining and rationalization efforts to once again rise from the ashes to which they were rightly consigned in the past.  On the opposite end, this has caused a reliance on pre-defined data queries or hard-coded software solutions, oftentimes based on what had been provided using human-readable reporting.  Both approaches are self-limiting and, to a large extent, self-defeating.  In the first case because the effort and time to construct the system will outlive the needs of the organization for intelligence, and in the second case, because no value (or additional insight) is added to the process.

When dealing with large, disparate sources of data, value is derived through that additional knowledge discovered through the proper use of the data.  This is the basis of the concept of what is known as KDD.  Given that organizations know the source and type of data that is being collected, it is not necessary to reinvent the wheel in approaching data as if it is a repository of Babel.  No doubt the euphemisms, semantics, and lexicon used by software publishers differs, but quite often, especially where data underlies a profession or a business discipline, these elements can be rationalized and/or normalized given that the appropriate business cross-domain knowledge is possessed by those doing the rationalization or normalization.

This leads to identifying the characteristics* of data that is necessary to achieve a continuity from the tactical to the strategic level that will achieve some additional necessary qualitative traits such as fidelity, credibility, consistency, and accuracy.  These are:

  1. Tangible.  Data must exist and the elements of data should record something that correspondingly exists.
  2. Measurable.  What exists in data must be something that is in a form that can be recorded and is measurable.
  3. Sufficient.  Data must be sufficient to derive significance.  This includes not only depth in data but also, especially in the case of marking trends, across time-phasing.
  4. Significant.  Data must be able, once processed, to contribute tangible information to the user.  This goes beyond statistical significance noted in the prior characteristic, in that the intelligence must actually contribute to some understanding of the system.
  5. Timely.  Data must be timely so that it is being delivered within its useful life.  The source of the data must also be consistently provided over consistent periodicity.
  6. Relevant.  Data must be relevant to the needs of the organization at each level.  This not only is a measure to test what is being measured, but also will identify what should be but is not being measured.
  7. Reliable.  The sources of the data be reliable, contributing to adherence to the traits already listed.

This is the shorthand that I currently use in assessing a data requirements and the list is not intended to be exhaustive.  But it points to two further considerations when delivering a solution.

First, at what point does the person cease to be the computer?  Business analytics–the tactical level of enterprise data optimization–oftentimes are stuck in providing users with a choice of chart or graph to use in representing such data.  And as noted by many writers, such as this one, no doubt the proper manner of representing data will influence its interpretation.  But in this case the person is still the computer after the brute force computing is completed digitally.  There is a need for more effective significance-testing and modeling of data, with built-in controls for selection bias.

Second, how should data be summarized to the operational and strategic levels so that “signatures” can be identified that inform information?  Furthermore, it is important to understand what kind of data must supplement the tactical level data at those other levels.  Thus, data streams are not only minimized to eliminate redundancy, but also properly aligned to the level of data intelligence.

*Note that there are other aspects of data characteristics noted by other sources here, here, and here.  Most of these concern themselves with data quality and what I would consider to be baseline data traits, which need to be separately assessed and tested, as opposed to antecedent characteristics.

 

The Monster Mash — Zombie Ideas in Project and Information Management

Just completed a number of meetings and discussions among thought leaders in the area of complex project management this week, and I was struck by a number of zombie ideas in project management, especially related to information, that just won’t die.  The use of the term zombie idea is usually attributed to the Nobel economist Paul Krugman from his excellent and highly engaging (as well as brutally honest) posts at the New York Times, but for those not familiar, a zombie idea is “a proposition that has been thoroughly refuted by analysis and evidence, and should be dead — but won’t stay dead because it serves a political purpose, appeals to prejudices, or both.”

The point is that to a techie–or anyone engaged in intellectual honesty–is that they are often posed in the form of question begging, that is, they advance invalid assumptions in the asking or the telling.  Most often they take the form of the assertive half of the same coin derived from “when did you stop beating your wife?”-type questions.  I’ve compiled a few of these for this post and it is important to understand the purpose for doing so.  It is not to take individuals to task or to bash non-techies–who have a valid reason to ask basic questions based on what they’ve heard–but propositions put forth by people who should know better based on their technical expertise or experience.  Furthermore, knowing and understanding technology and its economics is really essential today to anyone operating in the project management domain.

So here are a few zombies that seem to be most common:

a.  More data equals greater expense.  I dealt with this issue in more depth in a previous post, but it’s worth repeating here:  “When we inform Moore’s Law by Landauer’s Principle, that is, that the energy expended in each additional bit of computation becomes vanishingly small, it becomes clear that the difference in cost in transferring a MB of data as opposed to a KB of data is virtually TSTM (“too small to measure”).”  The real reason why we continue to deal with this assertion is both political in nature and also based in social human interaction.  People hate oversight and they hate to be micromanaged, especially to the point of disrupting the work at hand.  We see behavior, especially in regulatory and contractual relationships, where the reporting entity plays the game of “hiding the button.”  This behavior is usually justified by pointing to examples of dysfunction, particularly on the part of the checker, where information submissions lead to the abuse of discretion in oversight and management.  Needless to say, while such abuse does occur, no one has yet to point quantitatively to data (as opposed to anecdotally) that show how often this happens.

I would hazard to guess that virtually anyone with some experience has had to work for a bad boss; where every detail and nuance is microscopically interrogated to the point where it becomes hard to make progress on the task at hand.  Such individuals, who have been advanced under the Peter principle must, no doubt, be removed from such a position.  But this often happens in any organization, whether it be in private enterprise–especially in places where there is no oversight, check-and-balances, means of appeal, or accountability–or government–and is irrelevant to the assertion.  The expense item being described is bad management, not excess data.  Thus, such assertions are based on the antecedent assumption of bad management, which goes hand-in-hand with…

b. More information is the enemy of efficiency.  This is the other half of the economic argument to more data equals greater expense.  And I failed to mention that where the conflict has been engaged over these issues, some unjustifiable figure is given for the additional data that is certainly not supported by the high tech economics cited above.  Another aspect of both of these perspectives also comes from the conception of non-techies that more data and information is equivalent to pre-digital effort, especially in conceptualizing the work that often went into human-readable reports.  This is really an argument that supports the assertion that it is time to shift the focus from fixed report formatting functionality in software based on limited data to complete data, which can be formatted and processed as necessary.  If the right and sufficient information is provided up-front, then additional questions and interrogatories that demand supplemental data and information–with the attendant multiplication of data streams and data islands that truly do add cost and drive inefficiency–are at least significantly reduced, if not eliminated.

c.  Data size adds unmanageable complexity.  This was actually put forth by another software professional–and no doubt the non-techies in the room would have nodded their heads in agreement (particularly given a and b above), if opposing expert opinion hadn’t been offered.  Without putting too fine a point on it, a techie saying this to an open forum is equivalent to whining that your job is too hard.  This will get you ridiculed at development forums, where you will be viewed as an insufferable dilettante.  Digitized technology for well over 40 years has been operating under the phenomenon of Moore’s Law.  Under this law, computational and media storage capability doubles at least every two years under the original definition, though that equation has accelerated to somewhere between 12 and 24 months.  Thus, what was considered big data, say, in 1997 when NASA first coined the term, is not considered big data today.  No doubt, what is considered big data this year will not be considered big data two years from now.  Thus, the term itself is relative and may very well become archaic.  The manner in which data is managed–its rationalization and normalization–is important in successfully translating disparate data sources, but the assertion that big is scary is simply fear mongering because you don’t have the goods.

d.  Big data requires more expensive and sophisticated approaches.  This flows from item c above as well and is often self-serving.  Scare stories abound, often using big numbers which sound scary.  All data that has a common use across domains has to be rationalized at some point if they come from disparate sources, and there are a number of efficient software techniques for accomplishing this.  Furthermore, support for agnostic APIs and common industry standards, such as the UN/CEFACT XML, take much of the rationalization and normalization work out of a manual process.  Yet I have consistently seen suboptimized methods being put forth that essentially require an army of data scientists and coders to essentially engage in brute force data mining–a methodology that has been around for almost 30 years: except that now it carries with it the moniker of big data.  Needless to say this approach is probably the most expensive and slowest out there.  But then, the motivation for its use by IT shops is usually based in rice bowl and resource politics.  This is flimflam–an attempt to revive an old zombie under a new name.  When faced with such assertions, see Moore’s Law and keep on looking for the right answer.  It’s out there.

e.  Performance management and assessment is an unnecessary “regulatory” expense.  This one keeps coming up as part of a broader political agenda beyond just project management.  I’ve discussed in detail the issues of materiality and prescriptiveness in regulatory regimes here and here, and have addressed the obvious legitmacy of organizations to establish one in fiduciary, contractual, and governmental environments.

My usual response to the assertion of expense is to simply point to the unregulated derivatives market largely responsible for the financial collapse, and the resulting deep economic recession that followed once the housing bubble burst.  (And, aside from the cost of human suffering and joblessness, the expenses related to TARP).  Thus we know that the deregulation of banking had gone so well.  Even after the Band-Aid of Dodd-Frank the situation probably requires a bit more vigor, and should include the ratings agencies as well as the real estate market.  But here is the fact of the matter: such expenses cannot be monetized as additive because “regulatory” expenses usually represent an assessment of the day-to-day documentation, systems, and procedures required when performing normal business operations and due diligence in management.  I attended an excellent presentation last week where the speaker, tasked with finding unnecessary regulatory expenses, admitted as much.

Thus, what we are really talking about is an expense that is an essential prerequisite to entry in a particular vertical, especially where monopsony exists as a result of government action.  Moral hazard, then, is defined by the inherent risk assumed by contract type, and should be assessed on those terms.  Given the current trend is to raise thresholds, the question is going to be–in the government sphere–whether public opinion will be as forgiving in a situation where moral hazard assumes $100M in risk when things head south, as they often do with regularity in project management.  The way to reduce that moral hazard is through sufficiency of submitted data.  Thus, we return to my points in a and b above.

f.  Effective project assessment can be performed using high level data.  It appears that this view has its origins in both self-interest and a type of anti-intellectualism/anti-empiricism.

In the former case, the bias is usually based on the limitations of either individuals or the selected technology in providing sufficient information.  In the latter case, the argument results in a tautology that reinforces the fallacy that absence of evidence proves evidence of absence.  Here is how I have heard the justification for this assertion: identifying emerging trends in a project does not require that either trending or lower level data be assessed.  The projects in question are very high dollar value, complex projects.

Yes, I have represented this view correctly.  Aside from questions of competency, I think the fallacy here is self-evident.  Study after study (sadly not all online, but performed within OSD at PARCA and IDA over the last three years) have demonstrated that high level data averages out and masks indicators of risk manifestation, which could have been detected looking at data at the appropriate level, which is the intersection of work and assigned resources.  In plain language, this requires integration of the cost and schedule systems, with risk first being noted through consecutive schedule performance slips.  When combined with technical performance measures, and effective identification of qualitative and quantitative risk tied to schedule activities, the early warning is two to three months (and sometime more) before the risk is reflected in the cost measurement systems.  You’re not going to do this with an Excel spreadsheet.  But, for reference, see my post  Excel is not a Project Management Solution.

It’s time to kill the zombies with facts–and to behead them once and for all.

The Future — Data Focus vs. “Tools” Focus

The title in this case is from the Leonard Cohen song.

Over the last few months I’ve come across this issue quite a bit and it goes to the heart of where software technology is leading us.  The basic question that underlies this issue can be boiled down into the issue of whether software should be thought of as a set of “tools” or an overarching solution that can handle data in a way that the organization requires.  It is a fundamental question because what we call Big Data–despite all of the hoopla–is really a relative term that changes with hardware, storage, and software scalability.  What was Big Data in 1997 is not Big Data in 2016.

As Moore’s Law expands scalability at lower cost, organizations and SMEs are finding that the dedicated software tools at hand are insufficient to leverage the additional information that can be derived from that data.  The reason for this is simple.  A COTS tools publisher will determine the functionality required based on a structured set of data that is to be used and code to that requirement.  The timeframe is usually extended and the approach highly structured.  There are very good reasons for this approach in particular industries where structure is necessary and the environment is fairly stable.  The list of industries that fall into this category is rapidly becoming smaller.  Thus, there is a large gap that must be filled by workarounds, custom code, and suboptimized use of Excel.  Organizations and people cannot wait until the self-styled software SMEs get around to providing that upgrade two years from now so that people can do their jobs.

Thus, the focus must be shifted to data and the software technologies that maximize its immediate exploitation for business purposes to meet organizational needs.  The key here is the arise of Fourth Generation applications that leverage object oriented programming language that most closely replicate the flexibility of open source.  What this means is that in lieu of buying a set of “tools”–each focused on solving a specific problem stitched together by a common platform or through data transfer–that software that deals with both data and UI in an agnostic fashion is now available.

The availability of flexible Fourth Generation software is of great concern, as one would imagine, to incumbents who have built their business model on defending territory based on a set of artifacts provided in the software.  Oftentimes these artifacts are nothing more than automatically filled in forms that previously were filled in manually.  That model was fine during the first and second waves of automation from the 1980s and 1990s, but such capabilities are trivial in 2016 given software focused on data that can be quickly adapted to provide functionality as needed.  What this development also does is eliminate and make trivial those old checklists that IT shops used to send out in a lazy way of assessing relative capabilities of software to simplify the competitive range.

Tools restrict themselves to a subset of data by definition to provide a specific set of capabilities.  Software that expands to include any set of data and allows that data to be displayed and processed as necessary through user configuration adapts itself more quickly and effectively to organizational needs.  They also tend to eliminate the need for multiple “best-of-breed” toolset approaches that are not the best of any breed, but more importantly, go beyond the limited functionality and ways of deriving importance from data found in structured tools.  The reason for this is that the data drives what is possible and important, rather than tools imposing a well-trod interpretation of importance based on a limited set of data stored in a proprietary format.

An important effect of Fourth Generation software that provides flexibility in UI and functionality driven by the user is that it puts the domain SME back in the driver’s seat.  This is an important development.  For too long SMEs have had to content themselves with recommending and advocating for functionality in software while waiting for the market (software publishers) to respond.  Essential business functionality with limited market commonality often required that organizations either wait until the remainder of the market drove software publishers to meet their needs, finance expensive custom development (either organic or contracted), or fill gaps with suboptimized and ad hoc internal solutions.  With software that adapts its UI and functionality based on any data that can be accessed, using simple configuration capabilities, SMEs can fill these gaps with a consistent solution that maintains data fidelity and aids in the capture and sustainability of corporate knowledge.

Furthermore, for all of the talk about Agile software techniques, one cannot implement Agile using software languages and approaches that were designed in an earlier age that resists optimization of the method.  Fourth Generation software lends itself most effectively to Agile since configuration using simple object oriented language gets us to the ideal–without a reliance on single points of failure–of releasable solutions at the end of a two-week sprint.  No doubt there are developers out there making good money that may challenge this assertion, but they are the exceptions to the rule that prove the point.  An organization should be able to optimize the pool of contributors to solution development and rollout in supporting essential business processes.  Otherwise Agile is just a pretext to overcome suboptimized developmental approaches, software languages, and the self-interest of developers that can’t plan or produce a releasable product in a timely manner within budgetary constraints.

In the end the change in mindset from tools to data goes to the issue of who owns the data: the organization that creates and utilizes the data (the customer), or the proprietary software tool publishers?  Clearly the economics will win out in favor of the customer.  It is time to displace “tools” thinking.

Note:  I’ve revised the title of the blog for clarity.

Living in the Material World — A Call for Open Data from Materials Science

Since advocating for transparent and open data schemas and data repositories, I’ve run into other high tech professionals who have opined that such data requirements are only applicable to my core competency in the U.S. Aerospace & Defense vertical.  Now, in the 26 November on-line edition of the journal Science, comes an opinion piece from a number of Chinese corrosion scientists under the title “Materials science: Share corrosion data” have advocated the development of open data infrastructures to make the age and life of existing metallurgic infrastructure easily accessible to technology in a non-proprietary format.

As the article states, “corrosion costs six cents for every dollar of gross domestic product in the United States. Globally, that amounts to more than US$4 trillion a year — equivalent to damages from 40 Hurricane Katrinas. Half of that cost is in corrosion prevention and control, the other half in damages and lost productivity.”

In the software technology industry, the recent issues regarding the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has revealed strains in U.S.-Chinese relations on intellectual property and proprietary systems.  So the danger is always that the source of the advocacy will be ignored, despite the clear economic argument in favor of what the editorial proposes.

But the concern is transnational in nature.  As the piece points out, the U.S. Department of Energy has initiated its own program in alignment with the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Materials Genome Initiative (MGI) to establish open repositories of data in support of the alternative energy industry.  Given the aging U.S. infrastructure and the dangers from sudden failure from these engineering systems, it seems wise to track and share data for materials corrosion and lifespans.  Think of the sudden bridge failures that have hit headlines over the last several years.

Since the cost of not doing so can be measured in lives as well as economic cost, such data normalization and rationalization in this area takes on the role of being an essential element of governance.

Stay Open — Open and Proprietary Databases (and Why It Matters)

The last couple of weeks have been fairly intense workwise and so blogging has lagged a bit.  Along the way the matter of databases came up at a customer site and what constitutes open data and what comprises proprietary data.  The reason why this issue matters to customers rests of several foundations.

First, in any particular industry or niche there is a wide variety of specialized apps that have blossomed.  This is largely due to Moore’s Law.  Looking at the number of hosted and web apps alone can be quite overwhelming, particularly given the opaqueness of what one is buying at any particular time when it comes to software technology.

Second, given this explosion, it goes without saying that the market will apply its scythe ruthlessly in thinning it.  Despite the ranting of ideologues, this thinning applies to both good and bad ideas, both sound and unsound businesses equally.  The few that remain are lucky, good, or good and lucky.  Oftentimes it is being first to market on an important market discriminator, regardless of the quality in its initial state, that determines winners.

Third, most of these technology solutions will run their software on proprietary database structures.  This undermines the concept that the customer owns the data.

The reasons why software solutions providers do this is multifaceted.  For example, the database structure is established to enhance the functionality and responsiveness of the application where the structure is leveraged to work optimally with the application’s logic.

But there are also more prosaic reasons for proprietary database structures.  First, the targeted vertical or segment may not be very structured regarding the type of data, so there is wide variation on database configuration and structure.  But there is also a more base underlying motivation to keep things this way:  the database structure is designed to protect the application’s data from easy access from third party tools and, as a result, make their solution “sticky” within the market segment that is captured.  That is, database structure is a way to build barriers to competition.

For incumbents that are stable, the main disadvantages to the customer lie in the use of the database as a means of tying them to the solution as a barrier to exit.  At the same time incumbents erect artificial barriers to data entry.  For software markets with a great deal of new entries and innovation that will lead to some thinning, picking the wrong solution using proprietary data structures can lead to real problems when attempting to transition to more stable alternatives.  For example, in the case of hosted applications not only is data not on the customer’s own database servers, but that data could be located far from the worksite or even geographically dispersed outside of the physical control of the customer.

Open APIs in using data mining and variations of it as the Shaman of Big Data prescribe unstructured and non-relational databases has served to, at least in everyone’s mind, minimize such proprietary concerns.  After all, it thought, we can just crack open the data–right?  Well…not so fast.  Given a number of data scientists, data analysts, and open API object tools mainframe types can regain the status they lost with the introduction of the PC and spend months building systems that will eventually rationalize data that has been locked in proprietary prisons.  Or perhaps not.  The bigger the data the bigger the problem.  The bigger the question the more one must bring in those who understand the difference between correlation and causation.  In the end it comes down to the mathematics and valid methods of determining in real terms the behavior of systems.

Or if you are a small or medium-sized business or organization you can just decide that the data is irretrievable, or effectively so, since the ROI is not there to make it retrievable.

Or you can avoid the inevitable and, if you do business in a highly structured market, such as project management, utilize some open standard such as the UN/CEFACT XML.  Then, when choosing a COTS solution in communicating with the market, determine that databases must, at a minimum, conform to the open standard in database design.  This provides maximum flexibility to the customer, who can then perform value analysis on competing products, based on a analysis of functionality, flexibility, and sustainability.

This places the customer back into the role of owning the data.