Data Is The New Solar Energy

You’ve probably been hearing a lot about analytics and artificial intelligence in the past couple of years. Every software platform under the sun is looking to increase their visibility into the way that networks and systems behave. They can then take that data and plug it into a model and make recommendations about the way things need to be configured or designed.

Using analytics to aid troubleshooting is nothing new. We used to be able to tell when hard disks were about to go bad because of SMART reporting. Today we can use predictive analysis to determine when the disk has passed the point of no return and should be replaced well ahead of the actual failure. We can even plug that data into an AI algorithm to determine which drives on which devices need to be examined first based on a chart of performance data.

The power of this kind of data-driven network and systems operation does help our beleaguered IT departments feel as though they have a handle on things. And the power that data can offer to us has it being tracked like a precious natural resource. More than a few times I’ve heard data referred to as “the new oil”. I’d like to turn that on its head though. Data isn’t oil. It’s solar energy.

As Sure As The Sun Comes Up

Oil is created over millions of years. It’s a natural process of layering organic materials with pressure and time to create a new output. Sounds an awful lot like data, right? We create data through the interactions we have with systems. Now, let me ask you the standard Zen kōan, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” More appropriate for this conversation, “If two systems exist without user interaction, do they create data?”

The fact is in today’s technology-driven world that systems are creating data whether we want them to or not. There is output no matter what happens with our interactions. That makes the data ever-present. Like our glorious stellar neighbor. The sun is going to shine no matter what we do. Our planet is going to be bathed in energy no matter if we log on to our email client today or decide to go fishing. Data is going to be generated. What we choose to do with that data determines how we can utilize it.

In order to use oil, it must be processed and refined. It also must be found, drilled out of the ground, and transported to stations where it can be converted to different products. That’s a fairly common way to look at the process of turning data into the more valuable information product we need to make decisions. But in the world of ever-present data do we really need to go looking for it? Honestly, all you need to do is look around and you’ll see it! Kind of like going outside and looking up to find the sun shining down on us.

Let’s get to the processing part. Both forms of energy must be harnessed and concentrated to be useful. Oil requires refineries. Solar power requires the use of plants to consolidate and refine the collected energy from solar panels that generate electricity or heat energy that is converted into steam-powered electricity. In both cases there is infrastructure needed to convert the rew data to information. The key is how we do it.

Our existing infrastructure is based on the petroleum economy of refinement. Our standard consumers of oil are things like cars and trucks and other oil-powered fuel consumers. But the world is changing. Electrically powered vehicles and other devices don’t need the stopgap of oil or petroleum to consume energy. They can get it directly from the electrical grid that can be fed by solar energy. As we’ve adapted our consumption models of energy, we have found better, cleaner, more efficient ways to feed it with less infrastructure. Kind of like how we’ve finally dumped clunky methods for data collection like SNMP or WMI in favor of things like telemetry and open standard models that give us more info in better fashion than traps or alerts. Even the way we handle syslog data today is leaps and bounds better than it used to be.

Lastly, the benefits to standardization on this kind of collection are legion. With solar, the sun isn’t going away for a few billion more years. It’s going to stick around and continue to cause amazing sunrises and give me sunburns for the rest of my days. We’re not going to use up the energy output of the sun even if we tried. Oil has a limited shelf life at best. If we triple the amount of oil we use for the next 30 years we are going to run out completely until more can be made over the next few million years. If we increase the amount of solar energy we use by 10x over the next hundred years we won’t even put a dent in the output of the sun that we received in a minute during that time.

Likewise, with data, moving away from the old methods of collection and reporting mean we can standardize on new systems that give us better capabilities and don’t require us to maintain old standards forever. Anyone that’s ever tried to add a new entry to an archaic old MIB database will know why we need to get more modern. And if that means cleaner data collection all around then so be it.


Tom’s Take

Generally, I despise the allusions to data being some other kind of resource. They’re designed to capture the attention of senior executives that can’t imagine anything that isn’t expensive or in a TV series like Dallas. Instead, we need to help everyone understand the merits of why these kinds of transitions and shifts matter. It’s also important to help executives understand that data needs time and effort to be effective. We can’t just pick up data and shove it into the computers to get results any more than we can shove raw crude oil into a car and expect it to run. Given today’s environmental climate though, I think we need to start relating data to newer, better forms of energy. Just sit back and enjoy the sunshine.