Businesses aren't even close to harnessing all the benefits of their lightning-speed systems
In the second it takes to read this sentence, a top-end server can handle 10,000 electronic transactions. An Intel chip can process billions of instructions. An Oracle database with 3 terabytes of information can answer more than seven ad hoc queries. In today's computing environments, speed of light isn't hyperbole -- it's the velocity at which bits actually move through optical fiber.
Yet most businesses have only begun to harness all that latent speed. Despite a cost-performance ratio that has made state-of-the-art computers affordable even to small companies, few have come close to exploiting the time-compressing benefits of those systems. This gap between system potential and operational reality hasn't gone unnoticed. In a just-completed survey by InformationWeek Research, three-quarters of the business-technology managers responding say senior executives at their companies have asked their IT departments to shorten the time it takes to deliver key operational data. And 86% of respondents think their companies would gain competitive advantages if they reduced the time it takes to collect, analyze, and redistribute data.
- The Untapped Potential of Mobile Apps for Commercial Customers
- Secure Cloud: Taking Advantage of the Intelligent WAN
- IBM index reveals key indicators of business continuity exposure and maturity
- Embedding Agility in Next Generation System Designs (VDC)
- Strategy: Mapping IAM Processes to the Business
- Strategy: How to Conduct an Effective IT Security Risk Assessment
Senior management and business technologists alike sense an opportunity. "'Time is money' is something that resonates with everyone," says Anne Milley, director of analytical strategy at SAS Institute Inc., whose customers use data-mining software and sophisticated modeling techniques to make split-second decisions on incoming data.
The challenge is to build a real-time IT infrastructure that supports something far more ambitious: a real-time business. Imagine a company that can offer targeted incentives the moment a customer calls, track products in real time as they move from warehouse to store shelves, almost immediately close its books at the end of the quarter, and give senior executives up-to-the-minute reports on key operational data.
"There is a clear advantage," says Carlos Mario Toro, CIO of Conavi, a bank in Medellin, Colombia, that next month will begin making better use of the five seconds it takes for an ATM transaction to be completed. Conavi will use that precious window to offer customers new services, such as insurance, based on information about them culled from back-office Hewlett-Packard systems.
Real-time business requires synchronizing business processes with computers that manage and distribute data as events occur -- and a fast-acting corporate culture to make it all work. "You have to have a sense of urgency to really take advantage of real-time data flows," says Nigel Stokes, CEO of DataMirror Corp., a software company that specializes in real-time data backup and replication.
Real-time computing isn't new. For years, finance, manufacturing, and telecommunications companies have used it in parts of their operations. Now, more companies are taking on the bigger project of transforming themselves into real-time businesses because the potential benefits are so great -- and the pressures so urgent. They're looking to deliver better customer service, turn inventory faster, combat fraud, and respond more quickly to changing conditions. External factors such as the Securities and Exchange Commission's mandate that public companies deliver financial data more quickly and the brokerage industry's goal of "straight-through processing" are forcing others in the same direction.
"It's a place that corporations probably have to get to pretty quickly," says Robert Cline, VP of nonstop systems, operations, and network infrastructure at Brown & Co. Securities. The unit of J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. recently pared the time it takes to complete an online trade to 8.5 seconds from 11.5 seconds, improving its ranking among online brokerages. To do this, Cline says, required new middleware and "an enterprise performance initiative that was firmwide."
BellSouth Corp. is nine months into a project that involves using SAS Institute's data-analysis tools to deliver real-time recommendations to call-center reps who field calls from small-business customers. When a customer calls, the reps are ready to offer a service, discount, or incentive based on that customer's propensity to switch to another phone company. The technique has reduced churn among small-business accounts by 30%, making it a huge success, says Tim Barnes, BellSouth's director of strategic planning for small-business marketing.