Cloud computing is much talked about. By taking advantage of the convergence of affordable and ubiquitous broadband, mass storage, and mobile computing, cloud computing gives CIOs a better way to provision, deploy, and support business services. When implemented properly, cloud computing makes a large number of information services more secure, less expensive, and easier to operate. It simplifies business processes, development releases, and the software lifecycle, and makes it easier to amortize operational costs across multiple organisations.
So far cloud computing has been about service consolidation, not service innovation. Amongst the cloud services available, it's challenging to name any innovations. The same was true of personal computers before the release of VisCalc.
Eventually, new platforms almost inevitably begin to enable new applications, and that's where to look for the next big thing.
Throughout the history of computing, innovation has been partially predictable; by examining the newest capabilities, one is likely to find areas most ripe for innovation. So what does cloud computing do that's actually new, rather than just more efficient?
Cloud computing provides centralised storage, support, and deployment for a business' information. Such centralised, archival-quality storage is still quite rare; even mighty IBM, for example, distributes the email for its 400,000 workers onto hundreds of servers spread around the globe, making it nearly impossible to perform comprehensive operations on its archives as a whole. But what might you do if you had all your data in one place, professionally administered and with computing resources to spare?
Traditionally, archives are where data goes to die; information is retrieved from archives only in the event of a disaster, legal requirement, or other uncommon event. Such archives are like safe deposit boxes in banks; they keep things safe and secure, but don't do anything else. By contrast, a modern bank pays interest and offers a wide variety of products to help customers get the most from their assets.
An integrated cloud-based archive can begin to offer similar services with business data. Information banking is to traditional archiving as modern banking is to medieval treasury vaults. Not only is your information kept securely, but it is analysed in a variety of ways for your benefit, providing "interest" in the form of business intelligence and other services. Information previously locked up in static archives is increasingly retargeted to your organisation when and how it is most useful.
There are three approaches by which information banks can unlock the hidden value of archives: deeper business intelligence, open API's for archive access, and proactive information exploitation:
1. Business intelligence functions of various kinds can be supercharged by putting them atop an information bank. For the first time, a business's entire data can be made available as a whole for sophisticated analysis. This will lead to deeper insights, data visualisation, and reporting – none of which are new, but all of which are evolutionarily better with the availability of comprehensive archives.
An illustrative example is the analysis of social networks. With a complete archive of internal corporate communications, we can automatically build highly accurate and detailed visualisations of the interconnections between employees. Research suggests that this will yield highly actionable results; for example, most organisations tend to have employees who are "key connectors", providing rare links between different parts of the organisation. Unfortunately, such employees often get poor performance reviews, or are even fired, because the time they spend linking the company together translates into fewer deliverables. An information banking platform will make it possible, for the first time, for managers to consider an employee's communication activities in performance reviews.
2. The power of a single, integrated repository for all of an organisation's information is unlikely to be fully exploited by a single entity, even the bank itself. To reach its full potential, such information needs to be accessible to third party developers. Thus, a key part of the value proposition of an information bank is an API for exploiting it, leading naturally to the notion of an "app store" for business archives.
Third parties are traditionally much quicker to find and exploit niche needs, and are likely to develop creative information banking applications designed specifically for lawyers, or financial service companies, or other businesses with specific needs.
However, information banking APIs are tricky to get right. While a bug in a smartphone app can rarely do worse than cripple a single phone, a bug in an information banking application could, in theory, cripple the work of an entire business or more. To prevent a single bad app from bringing down the entire infrastructure, app stores for information banks will need considerably more checks and balances than app stores for consumer devices.
3. Proactive Information exploitation is the use of business intelligence functions by an automated system to deliver actionable business insights before they are even requested. This is where some of the most innovative and exciting applications of information banking are likely to be found.
For example, by linking an email client to an information banking archive, it becomes possible to annotate an outgoing email message, as it is being composed, with links to relevant information in the archive (or elsewhere). With this technology, it should often be the case that the sender of a message can learn enough new information while composing the message that he substantially alters the message before he sends it. Moreover, because the information archive sees an entire business archive as a whole, it may detect relevant information that the user doesn't have permission to see; in such cases, it can asynchronously request permission from the information owner, showing it later to the person who might benefit from seeing it.
Recent studies have shown that pattern analysis of email and other communication can yield early warnings of illicit employee behaviour. More prosaically, deep analysis of communication archives can reveal security vulnerabilities, compliance violations, and other concerns. An information bank can search for these regularly, proactively notifying the relevant managers.
Ultimately, the goal of information banking is to enhance "organisational memory". Researchers have long studied how companies preserve, standardise, and reproduce information and behaviour as time passes and employee turnover eliminates most individual memory. Many promising academic experiments in this area have foundered on the absence of accessible, comprehensive repositories of business data. The advent of information banking means that organisational memory technology may finally be practical, with the potential to introduce major efficiencies in organisational function.
In the long run, information banking can proactively create and extend communities of interest, detect duplication of efforts, help speed legal discovery and due diligence, quickly aggregate relevant data for medical diagnosis and treatment, and much more. Anywhere that data has been separated by servers, services, and silos, information banking has the potential to break down walls and introduce new synergies and efficiencies. Clever applications that exploit these new possibilities may well be the "next big thing" for a variety of industries and organisations.
About the author: Nathaniel Borenstein is Chief Scientist at Mimecast