A new breed of ‘data-first’ tools could soon dominate the enterprise

The real potential of big data

Above: The real potential of big data

Image Credit: Sergey Nivens / Shutterstock

We are about to witness an upheaval in the enterprise software market that will put billions of dollars of IT spending up for grabs.

In the old world, enterprise applications were primarily about increasing a business’ efficiency through better workflow — data and analytics were add-ons. In the emerging world, applications will be “data first,” putting data and algorithms at the center, and using them to drive other applications.

This revolution is in its early days, but data-first services are starting to emerge in many of the major enterprise-application categories. Companies such asVlocity in customer relationship management (CRM), Moogsoft in IT operations, and Kanjoya in human resources are amongst startups driving the new, data-first approach. [Disclosure: My firm is an investor in Moogsoft.]

The original enterprise software paradigm spawned huge businesses such as SAP and large parts of Oracle, and their legacy services remain a potent force. By mapping out key business workflows, writing software to codify them, and then repeating this play across a wide range of processes, they created value by improving efficiency. The subsequent SaaS revolution improved the software delivery and distribution model massively, but it also deflected attention from innovation that would have delivered even more value. As one top SaaS CEO explained to me recently: “The cloud idea turned out to be so big that we never got to the other ideas in our plan.”

Many of those neglected ideas had to do with data. Data-first applications differ from workflow-first ones in several respects. Architecturally speaking, they are built around a scalable data-centric core that is highly flexible with regard to data type and structure and the nature of the processing to be done on the data. This is the opposite of prior architectures that led with business logic.

The new services also rely heavily on embedded algorithms. High-frequency trading, consumer fraud detection, and ad targeting are early examples of this tectonic shift. These involved an incredibly high scale and velocity of interactions, which meant no human could be in the loop. At the same time, a glitch wouldn’t bankrupt a company, kill a patient, or cause any number of other catastrophic outcomes. In processes where the stakes are much higher, data-first applications are likely to support skilled operators and analysts wherever good data sets can be put to use (see chart below).

data first decision making

What really distinguishes data-first applications, however, is the virtuous data cycle they make possible. The data they generate are used to power additional, domain-specific applications, driving additional insights. So they could eventually become virtual breeder reactors of business-process optimization and insight generation. The cycle isn’t new: Consumer web companies such as Google and Facebook have been running this play for years. What is new is that this phenomenon is now invading numerous business categories.

Many early examples have emerged in sales and marketing, where it’s relatively easy to demonstrate a swift return on investment. The data-first model will have most value in industry-specific applications. Veeva is the canonical example of this. The company built its footprint — and its data set — with a standard CRM application for life sciences, subsequently rolling out other data-first services such as Veeva Network and Veeva OpenData in the healthcare arena. Veterans from Veeva and CRM pioneer Siebel Systems have now teamed up at Vlocity to target other verticals.

With lots of data, complex operations, and highly technical users, IT is a natural place for data-first applications. Moogsoft’s incident-management application consumes data from various IT systems, applications, and external sources and delivers an intelligent view of service-affecting situations in real time. It also captures information about how incidents are resolved to build an historical data set of key people, symptoms, and cures.

Cyber security is another area where the new generation of applications is taking off. Today’s security-information and event-management products are easily overwhelmed by the volume and diversity of data streaming towards them. To tackle this challenge, Securonix, Fortscale, and Exabeam have developed services that ingest numerous data streams and use big data analytics to identify anomalous behaviors and create measures of potential risk.

Even in HR, which has far less data and far fewer technical users, new entrants are championing a data-first approach. They include HiQ, which uses data science and public information to identify employee flight risks, and Kanjoya, which uses the data generated by a social network that it created, called the “Experience Project”, to train algorithms for emotional analysis of free-text employee survey responses.

These and other data-first attackers will initially appear with focused use cases and will integrate with incumbent systems for legacy data access, as new data collectors, and as analytical coprocessors. The first impression is all very complementary. However, this is likely to be just the first step in a wholesale transformation that will be every bit as big as the SaaS wave before it.

The smarter incumbents are already trying to respond, but this could well be an even more difficult transition for them than the leap to the cloud. Data-first alternatives are already capturing beachheads that will allow them, some day, to topple empires.


Cloudlands: VR Minigolf is a zany way to experience virtual reality with the HTC Vive

Cloudlands: VR Minigolf lets you play golf by swinging a putter in VR.

Above: Cloudlands: VR Minigolf lets you play golf by swinging a putter in VR.

Image Credit: Futuretown

Golf games are usually standard on a new video game platform. But, they only work so well when you’re pretending to swing at a ball with a 16-button controller.

In virtual reality, however, you can get much more into the actual experience of playing golf, and that gives this style of game the potential to reach a much wider audience than many other VR titles. That’s what Futuretown is trying to deliver with Cloudlands: VR Minigolf, a new game coming soon for the HTC Vive. The title is one of a dozen releases that I saw for the HTC Vive that debuts in April on the PC. The system is Valve and HTC’s bid to be a player in what could be a $30 billion industry by 2020, according to tech advisor Digi-Capital. I saw the game at a Valve event in Seattle.

With the HTC Vive, you wear a VR headset, so you can see into an immersive virtual world. But, your hands are also free to be used in virtual reality. You hold independent hand controllers in each hand, and sensors in the room can track the full motion of your body with precision. The system also designates a safe area where you can walk without bumping into your furniture.

Cloudlands: VR Minigolf

Above: One of the courses in Cloudlands: VR Minigolf.

Image Credit: Futuretown

That makes the Vive a very interesting system for experiences like miniature golf, which require a lot of detection of subtle movement. Previous motion-based games on the Wii and Xbox’s Kinect systems are pretty inaccurate. With the Vive, though, your ability to move and be detected precisely is pretty good.

Futuretown used the sensor system to develop a physics-based mechanic around putting. You hold the controllers as if you were holding a real putter. You swing the putter back and then hit the ball. The sound of the putter hitting the ball is pretty good, but when I played, I got the sense that the force required to make the ball move the right distance was off. I hit the ball and my stroke was way too soft. Hopefully, the developers can adjust the force, so you don’t have to do a mighty swing every time you hit the ball.

The environment in the game and the creativity of the course layout are where the game shines. You’ll find cool natural landscapes and very weird contraptions like you would see in the best miniature-golf courses. You can hit a ball through the rotating parts of a windmill. But, you also have to send a ball down multiple levels and through impossibly small gaps in barriers. Don’t be surprised if it takes you 10 strokes to get a ball into the hole.

An impossibly tough hole in Cloudlands: VR Minigolf

Above: An impossibly tough hole in Cloudlands: VR Minigolf.

Image Credit: Futuretown

This title should appeal to players of all ages and all skill levels. It’s the kind of release that could widen the audience for VR.

Futuretown has raised money, but it isn’t saying how much yet. It has 17 employees in Taoyuan, Taiwan, and Vancouver, Canada. The founders are Johan Yang and Justin Liebregts, who started on the Cloudlands: VR Minigolf title after they visited HTC’s headquarters in Taiwan in March 2015. The game is expected to launch in April with the launch of the HTC Vive.

“We decided VR was the ‘thing’ we want to do for the rest of our lives,” they said.

The team is also working on other VR titles, such as a shooter dubbed Jeeboman. Cloudlands: VR Minigolf will also be available on the Oculus Rift.