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Rescuing a Stranded Project

By Tony Kontzer  |  Posted 08-05-2008 Print
Anything as a service (XaaS) is a potentially game-changing technology that could reshape IT.

Rescuing a Stranded Project

A similar scenario unfolded at NASDAQ OMX, which provides technology and services to some 60 exchanges around the world. An R&D team there had been batting about an idea for a desktop stock research tool, but the project had remained stranded on the to-do list, largely because of cost.

"It would have been a major investment if we had built it using traditional technology," says Claude Courbois, associate vice president of data product research and development. That investment would have included hiring a database administrator, maintaining a boatload of code, and purchasing additional storage and Web servers.

Then, about a year ago, after Courbois and his colleagues held separate meetings with representatives of Amazon and Adobe Systems, they had a breakthrough realization: By using Amazon's S3 service to store some 4 terabytes of data, and combining that with Adobe's AIR (Adobe Integrated Runtime) application, they could develop the product affordably and rely on AIR to handle the last bits of processing on users' desktops.

So the project team used some internal applications to prepare the stock data, built a desktop interface, and started uploading the most recent month's worth of data to S3. And they used Courbois' corporate credit card to pay for it.

Soon after, NASDAQ OMX started selling the downloadable product, called Market Replay, to brokers and financial Web sites. The product automatically downloads AIR if it's not already installed on the user's PC. Then, any time a user wants to verify pricing info, a query for any 10-minute period in the past 30 days of a listing on NASDAQ, the New York Stock Exchange or the American Stock Exchange returns a dizzying amount of detail on the events surrounding that stock's price fluctuations during that time. The only continuing interaction between NASDAQ OMX and Market Replay is the persistent uploading of some 300,000 files (about 30 gigabytes) into S3 each day, with available data being as recent as 30 minutes in the past.

Courbois wouldn't share the exact cost of the effort, nor would he reveal the product's pricing, but he did say the initial upload cost less than $1,000, and ongoing monthly costs for the storage and data transfers are in that range, as well. At that price, Market Replay won't have to generate a lot of revenue to justify the expense.

What really excites Courbois about his team's foray into the cloud is that it expands their ability to be entrepreneurial. "I've got 20 ideas I'm working on right now, and if IT has time for five, and if I can get a sixth done because I use cloud computing, that's fantastic," he says. "We were able to create something we think is groundbreaking in our industry, and we didn't have to buy hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of servers to deliver this product to our customers."

And Courbois isn't done. His team plans to develop versions of Market Replay for NASDAQ OMX's European customers, as well as one that centers on options, which NASDAQ began trading earlier this year. He's also exploring ways to take advantage of the cloud processing power of Amazon's EC2 service.

This model, in which cloud computing is used to support an application that IT doesn't have the staff or computing resources to support, could dominate the market during its infancy. But it won't be long before more sophisticated uses become common. "Where it becomes even more interesting is when you have users contributing to the functionality of the application using Web 2.0 technology," says Chris Howard, vice president and service director for IT advisory firm Burton Group.

In fact, Web 2.0 technology played a critical role in a recent, and ambitious, cloud-enabled project at Sogeti Group, a $1.5 billion-a-year IT services firm owned by French IT consulting giant Capgemini. The effort started last November when, during a meeting with an IBM executive, Sogeti CTO Michiel Boreel, expressed his desire to "democratize innovation" at the company.

It was suggested that Boreel adapt an IBM concept known as an "idea gem," in which Web 2.0 tools are used to create a temporary real-time collaboration environment. With 21,000 employees, Sogeti faced significant technological hurdles in making that happen. Enabling such an environment to be accessed by thousands of employees simultaneously would require lightning-quick servers, a fat pipe delivering lots of Net bandwidth, and a robust and stable application.

Since Boreel's main concern was speed, he was reluctant to go through Sogeti's bureaucratic IT channels to get the project off the ground. So when IBM offered to fast-track the project's development by building the needed application on its Lotus Connections social networking platform and hosting it from its cloud computing facility in Dublin, Boreel leapt at the opportunity.

That's when he approached Sogeti's CIO to let him know of his plans, saying that IT had enough on its plate, and he wanted the project--which he had re-dubbed an "idea storm"--to be ready fast. This didn't go over well with an IT department accustomed to supporting massive projects.

As Boreel recalls, "Their initial reaction was, 'Why are you trying to do our job? You tell us what you want to accomplish, and then we'll figure out how to do it.'"

Boreel's reaction? "I didn't want to spend the next half year going back and forth with the hows and the whats," he says. "This wasn't about technology. It was about communication and collaboration."

He assuaged the CIO by pointing out that experimenting with an IBM cloud would provide Sogeti with a roadmap for how its own infrastructure should be defined in a cloud computing-dominated world. He had the IT executives talk with IBM about security and performance concerns, and they agreed to let the effort proceed, with IBM at the helm.

Boreel says the episode reminded him of the mid-1990s, when the first commercial uses of the Internet started popping up, and many CIOs reacted by banning it from their networks because of security concerns. He recalls that people simply brought their own modems to work to connect their computers and phones. As a result, companies suddenly faced thousands of security threats instead of just one.

Boreel's instincts proved spot on. The idea storm was ready in a few months, and last April, the 72-hour collaboration went off without a hitch, despite the fact that one-fourth of the company's employees--more than double the number Boreel hoped for--logged on to collectively create 2,000 ideas.

Subsequently, the 60 most viable of those ideas were clustered into six categories. The company is currently in the process of turning those ideas into concrete projects.

When asked what would have happened if he had agreed to let IT support the project rather than placing it in IBM's cloud, Boreel replied, "I'm sure that at this time, we'd still be discussing how we were going to do this."

Instead, the success of the effort has sold Boreel on cloud computing as the right technology to support future idea storms, which he says will be expanded to include customers. He also sees opportunities to place other collaborative applications--e-mail, agendas and scheduling, for instance--in a cloud computing environment.

And for those CIOs who fear cloud computing for its perceived lack of sufficient security and reliability, Boreel has some succinct advice: Get over it, quick. "Cloud computing is much more of an opportunity than it is a threat," he says. "But when you ignore an opportunity long enough, it becomes a threat."

Spoken like a true trailblazer.


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