Age of Instrumentation Creates Unprecedented Business Opportunity

By Mark Herring

Companies that leverage data in real time to improve the customer experience, expand product offerings and become a data-driven enterprise have a competitive edge that will propel them into new data-driven opportunities.

Throughout history, innovation has resulted in unrealized dependencies, with little initial understanding of the magnitude of need they have created. Back when cars were invented, no one could have foreseen the world's future reliance on gasoline. And with the proliferation of devices in our lives, who can live without their Wi-Fi connectivity? With these major disruptive technologies, new industries are borne, and companies that embrace and leverage these changes see exponential results.

Today, we live in the age of instrumentation. Every available surface in the material world—streets, cars, factories, power grids, ice caps, satellites, clothing, phones, microwaves, milk containers, planets, human bodies, even recently cows—can be connected. Everything has, or has the potential to have, a sensor. In parallel, we are seeing the instrumentation of the virtual world as, with trends such as microservices, containerization, elastic storage and software-defined networking all pushing increasing volumes of metrics and events of status information, even down to the smallest of software components.

Companies have the opportunity to capture and analyze all of these new data streams to find greater business insight and interesting business moments that will enable them to make real-time decisions deriving massive competitive advantage. For instance, a power company might use this information to re-orient each wind turbine to achieve 5 percent greater yield in energy production, or a retailer might understand its customer journey and be able increase in-store sales by 20 percent by relevant cross and upsell promotions. What we're witnessing, and what the times demand, is a paradigmatic shift in how we approach our data infrastructure and how we approach building, monitoring, controlling and managing this data for competitive advantage.

While there are thousands of different applications and use cases for which organizations are gaining competitive advantage instrumenting systems and monitoring and analyzing the data, here's one that is particularly unique. Instrumentation might seem high-tech, but this use case involves Internet of Things (IoT) sensor monitoring that is making a profound difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of families and children in rural Africa.

The company at the center of this effort is BBOXX (pronounced "Bee Box," short for "Battery Box"), which develops and manufactures products to provide affordable, clean solar energy to off-grid communities in the developing world. Its systems include a solar panel connected to a battery and a set of USB and DC connectors to power lights, radios and low-powered televisions. The units also include a set of electronics to allow BBOXX to control it remotely.

In these African countries, communities rely on light from burning kerosene, creating soot and toxic fumes that permeate the home as a family is together at night and the children try to study. BBOXX had an idea for an effective solution: an instrumented, solar-powered "Battery Box" placed in each home to power lights and appliances, such as TVs, lights and mobile phones. There were many technology hurdles to overcome to make this idea a reality, including the fact that cellular technology for remote connectivity was sparsely deployed. BBOXX thus had to find databases that could handle the volume of time series data needed to monitor and control these millions of data points per second.

While the list of technologies working together to help these African families spend quality time together in a smoke-free environment is long, BBOXX deployed an advanced time series database from InfluxData as its sensor-monitoring engine to store, visualize and analyze the millions of battery sensor readings in real time. With instrumentation in place, as an example, BBOXX has been able to use the gathered stream data to predict battery failure before a failure can occur. As a result, this has enabled the team to practice predictive maintenance, raising automated alerts with its customer service team, tracking unit failure rates in real time and accurately predicting the maintenance requirements across the product portfolio.

The real benefits of BBOXX's instrumented system, however, can be seen in the countries across Africa. As a result of replacing kerosene lanterns, the communities have offset 40,000 tons of carbon dioxide and have saved $2.4 million. BBOXX has generated 4 gigawatt-hours of energy, and provides more than 350,000 people across 35 African countries with electricity. Now more than 63,000 children are able to study under good light without straining their eyes, and without inhaling soot and fumes from burning kerosene. Instrumentation is at the core of the solution meeting BBOXX's current needs of remote monitoring, billing and alerting of its 85,000 units, with plans to grow to nearly 1 million units by 2020.

While the BBOXX IoT use case is unique, its approach and design pattern are applicable across every industry. At the heart of this new paradigm, the underlying data looks very similar. It is massive amounts of time-stamped data. To gain insight and act, users will have to evaluate and ask questions about such data, which are based on timeframes and ranges. Time is no longer something added to data; it is constitutive of the data. There's no chance to write time series routines as they arise because time is already here. Taking precious moments to do so eliminates the opportunity for organizations to make real-time or near-real-time decisions.

Time series databases for metrics and events are proving to be optimized for delivering business value from all these data streams, including from IoT devices, to streamline DevOps, and to provide real-time analytics. Time series databases are purpose-built for handling these new workloads of millions of writes per second, with time-bound queries that are non-blocking that can provide real-time insights to detect an interesting business moment. They are designed to be highly distributed by nature, allowing decisions to happen closer to the point of impact, and handle data retention and compression policies to ensure they are not overly resource intensive.

The Age of Instrumentation is creating unprecedented business opportunity to those companies that are able to leverage this data in real time to improve the customer experience, expand product offerings and become a data-driven enterprise. Ultimately, this gives them a competitive edge that will propel the business into new data-driven opportunities.

Mark Herring, InfluxData's CMO, is a well-rounded Silicon Valley executive with proven experience in taking complex technology and making it understandable to the broader audience. He has a deep passion for marketing, starting with the developer all the way up to the CIO. Before working at InfluxData, Mark was the VP of corporate and developer marketing at Hortonworks. Previously, he held senior management positions at Software AG, Sun Microsystems, Forte Software and Oracle. Mark holds a B.S. degree from the University of Witwatersrand, in South Africa.