When it comes to IT infrastructure, the narrative is really getting to be as complicated in its own right as the volumes and complexities of data that businesses now have to work with. And it is not unreasonable to suspect that many vendors have tended to glory in their ability to create, develop and provide these technologies and tools of ever-greater complexity. But that tide is now turning.
Signs that the core marketing messages of IT infrastructure are changing were very much in evidence at the recent TIBCO NOW online conference, where it was clear that a complete volte face had occurred from the traditional position of ‘look at the shiny baubles we can provide for you’ to one of ‘so, what is it you exactly want us to help you achieve?’.
That, so far as Tibco is concerned, currently comes down to three broad objectives: the ability to work with any data, the ability to work with that data in real time to produce worthwhile results in an appropriate timescale, and to have a good experience of the process of achieving such goals. These are then tied together by an underlying theme of sustainable innovation.
To get a better idea of some of the thinking behind the developments, I took the chance to talk with Tibco’s Senior VP and Chief Operating Officer, Matt Quinn. The premise is that customers are looking for an environment where change now comes as a continual evolution of technologies rather than a series of episodic revolutions. As IT has grown from being an interesting and occasionally useful support to business management to be the fundamental platform on which everything hangs, the pressure has grown for something a bit more predictable, where development is sustainable over long periods of time.
Given the sustainable innovation pitch, there’s clearly the potential here for users to form the mistaken assumption that by buying some Tibco kit, they will instantly become innovative, but Quinn disputed that users would take that line:
At the end of the day, we provide tools in much the same way that tool manufacturers have for years and years. A paintbrush doesn't make a painter paint. However, you want the tools to be good. So on the one side, a painter can use any old paintbrush, but is better with a good paintbrush. The woodworker can work with any material, but give him or her great material and great tools and they will do amazing things.
With the data piece, the depth and breadth of data facing business users is now a fundamental issue. The growing diversity of data forms and formats, coupled with the sheer volume of it all, is creating a classic problem of being unable to see the wood for the volume of trees. Given Tibco's long background of developing tools in this specific area, Quinn happily suggests that this growth in depth and diversity - coupled with data’s increasing gravitational field - gives Tibco an ‘unfair advantage’ over other vendors.
One of key factors that is changing here is that the focus of both vendors and users on Big Data as a specific subject is now becoming far more qualified. What Quinn sees now is an almost exponential growth in the variety of applications and systems that get used in an enterprise, partly fuelled by the shift to cloud. The downside to this however is users that end up with thousands of those small services generating a lot of different types of information and data, much of which can no longer be stored in a traditional row and column database:
All of a sudden you've got this new wave of having 360 degree views of things like customers, but now it's not just the data stored in databases, it's all the data in the enterprise.
Tibco has already moved in on one of the consequential developments from this change, with the formal announcement at the conference of a new metadata database to help users pull together sometimes radically different forms of data that pertain to a specific subject or project. Tibco Cloud Metadata is designed to meet the growing customer need for data about individual data elements. As Quinn observed, this is often a company’s longest-lived asset, because customers and companies often have 30 years-plus of sprawl which can generate petabytes of data.
If customers are acquiring a lot more data, then being able to turn that into insights and actions in real time becomes even more complex and important. As he pointed out, there is little point in knowing something that happened 12 months ago. Business managers need to know what the data means for their business, what insights of value can be derived and exploited, as close to right now as possible.
That not only includes working with different data forms, but different interpretations of what real time means, as this is relative to the needs of each individual business. Sometimes real time for a customer can really mean real time, be that on premise or in the cloud. And the latter, because it is ultimately dependent upon the public telecoms networks for the delivery of data, always carries with it the potential for real time to be savaged by system failures beyond the control of any business:
With messaging services in general, and real time in general, it is a little bit, a matter of perspective. There are some customers where, you know, milliseconds and microseconds matter. And there are others where minutes and hours matter. And so the Tibco messaging suite needs to better handle both cases.
We've done a lot of work working with the likes of Amazon and Microsoft to ensure that, even in a cloud setting, performance is great and latency is managed. And from familiar customers, what we've found is it's not how fast a service can be delivered - it's actually how predictable. A lot of customers will say, Look, I don't really care whether it's, it's 10 milliseconds or 10 microseconds of latency, I just need it to be very predictable.
A new partnerships with Microsoft Azure was one of the bigger news stories of the Tibco conference, though again there was the feeling that `’still not working with Azure’ would have been a bigger story. It is however an obvious move to make and significantly spreads the range of options available to both existing Tibco users looking to develop into the cloud, and existing Microsoft and Azure users looking to beef up their integration, analytics and real time operations
According to Quinn, when the majority of new or existing customers approach the company they come with ‘cloud first’ as their opening position, yet what they are seeking to achieve doesn't run as a service, so the strategy is to dovetail with that. This makes for a diverse set of customers operating in a wide range of more, or less, regulated environments:
So over the last three years we've gone through a tremendous amount of re-architecture of our core technologies, so that they really do run natively in the cloud, as a service. It could also run in a customer cloud, or plain data center on premises. That adaptability, what we call anywhere and everywhere, is super important to us.
The one significant shift in emphasis, however, is that new developments are likely to come out on the cloud first:
You know, we've got 25 years’ worth of experience in building some of the world's largest real time systems. And in many cases, those systems were so large and so complex, that they actually started to resemble modern clouds anyway.
Some of the thinking behind the developments in connectivity demonstrate quite a shift in the way the company is looking to connect to its widening marketplace in ways that help its customers not only connect their own internal operations more effectively but also connect with their own markets and customers. This has included a subtle, but significant shift in its approach to its partner community.
This is being democratised so that the smaller niche partners – the traditional Value Added Reseller community – are now treated exactly the same as Tibco’s longer standing partner community of the large systems integrators. As Quinn acknowledged, all of them, from the biggest to the smallest, are all doing the same basic job in the same way, to provide the same results, so they all need the same support.
The new version of Tibco’s analytical tool, Spotfire, is one piece of technology that he expects to play a role in building new connected experiences. Version 11, known as `Mods’ after the modern gaming approach of having user modifiable games, uses the same approach of lightweight, pliable components that allow users to tailor analytic applications. The goal is to make it infinitely customizable.
This should make it easier for business users to tailor it to their industries and needs. There is even the chance of tech-savvy business users building analytic applications that get to market faster, without reinventing the wheel every time. New mods are also claimed to be easy to build using common visualisation toolkits.
Here is more evidence of the maturing of the highest ends of hi-tech endeavour as vendors come to realise that because they understand the minutiae of what they are working on and delivering, the rest of the world may not – and they are the important ones as they have to use it all. For many users, both at a corporate and individual level, will find this more than helpful.