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Author's profile photo Clinton Jones

Welcome to the data swamp

It is TECHED 2010 and I am holed up in the virtual Venice on the strip which is where TECHED is being run. It has been an interesting first day.  Our first Winshuttle day in a rather cramped booth has been frenetic to say the least and as usual the demo gods weren’t on my side but that’s life and so we simply have to get on with it. Once again the mix of customers and prospects has been interesting, the profile of attendees is of course more inclined towards the technology itself than business processes and business as is characteristic of other shows, but there is of course still a focus on those aspects as well because despite or perhaps in spite of technology, business’ must do business and the people who support them need to understand at least a little about the business, how it works and what it needs.

I have attended several TECHEDs before and 2010 didn’t strike me as particularly different to prior years, the venue is large and spread out and despite plenty of signage it is tricky to navigate at the best of times and becomes more so when you have the thronging masses of SAP techies log jamming the corridors clutching their swag bags and tchotchkes. I see the hand-out curiosities of the booths as something akin to happy meal toys. You can never have enough! Well ok, that’s not entirely true; you only need just so many stress balls. These trinkets are not unlike data though, more on that later…

No TECHED could be visited without a comment on the DEMO JAM held on the first night of the event. While it didn’t quite have the showmanship a  Shai Agassi TECHED,  it was enjoyable nonetheless and there were some interesting concepts and ideas presented by the 6 participants. I missed the opening of the DEMO JAM but managed to catch all 6 of the show downs and the sentiments of the audience were quite visible on the response of the applause meter.

Though I would never have thought it, people also really do seems to find the idea of the mobile experience incredibly appealing, certainly, mobility solutions and interesting ideas around business intelligence and reporting dashboards dominated. I have always thought that integration of external technologies like valves, pressure meters and sensors were really cool things to connect up to your SAP system but I have also concluded that sometimes the things these devices generate really shouldn’t be stuffed into your SAP system even if you can! It may seem a little ironic that I work for a company, Winshuttle,  that has forged its reputation on supporting users being able to stuff Excel data into SAP systems and of course that concept is not going to go away any time soon however I do think that sometimes technologists implement integration widgets without proper consideration of the long term implications for system performance relevance and administration.

Some years ago I observed a presentation by BASF on traceability, in the good old days of VHS cassettes; I recall it was a demonstration on the awesomeness of track and trace through having a high performance database hooked up to an MES. I don’t recall whether the presentation was an SAP one or not but what I do recall is that they used early BI and data mining techniques to determine a field quality problem with the compound applied to the surface of magnetic tape. There was so much data in the system that was in use that they were able to determine the exact date and time of the compromise in compounds, the associated raw materials batches and the resulting tape batches for recall.

In a single manufacturing process it is conceivable that a single production run could generate tens of thousands of events and recordings and these could easily be placed in your SAP QM system for example. In the life of a carton of fresh pasteurized milk, one day after the expire date on the packaging, it seems this data would be no longer useful; it might be useful for long term auditing or trend analysis but at a granular level of second by second or even minute by minute logging it seems to be a lot of superfluous data to have in ERP. That all said, I also recall many painful hours reconciling disparate systems in the past; trying to work out which data in system A tied up to which data in system B so that we could perform a recall or determine what a root cause was for a field problem; it’s hard to set a balance. It seems to be getting easier though, the  BI demos at least alluded to that in some part, the only problem as I see it, is that the volumes of data are just growing exponentially and we run the risk of being overrun if we are not careful.  

As for the mobile stuff; well it’s everywhere, everyone seems to want to tweet, facebook, email, time-keep  and report on-the-go. I guess it has always been that way the only difference is that in the past we did it with clip boards or perhaps offline mobile devices and now we can use real-time connections to backend systems like SAP to post information. My thoughts are that a lot of companies don’t for example, keep all clock recordings in SAP, instead they maintain aggregated data in SAP and use external systems to store the details, referring to the precise clockings only when necessary and applying an appropriate archiving process to keep the database small enough to be performant.

It’s time to consider that with all these new capabilities, just because you can post that data in SAP, doesn’t mean you should and just like those freebies at the booth, sometimes you really should just say NO MORE! Have a brushy…this one is green!

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