• Technology
  • The Economist

Timely Technology

New kinds of software could make companies both more integrated and more flexible.

Squabbling about who was the first to come up with “the next big thing” is a favourite game in Silicon Valley, and it is being played with gusto over the real-time enterprise. Vivek Ranadivé, the chief executive of Tibco, a Silicon Valley software firm, is miffed that Mr Khosla at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the venture-capital firm, has appropriated his thoughts about the subject. He grumbles that the money man must have picked up the idea when Mr Khosla presented him with a leadership award a year ago.

In technology, especially, good ideas tend to pop up in several places when the time is right. But Mr Ranadivé was definitely one of the first to realise that there will be a growing need for integration: linking together disparate computer systems so information can flow more or less instantaneously. He also saw that this has to be done in a way that allows companies to change their business processes quickly.

To become real-time, companies must have an overarching “spreadsheet” that connects everything they do. But they also need good tools so they can easily change “macros”. And because users cannot keep track of all those rows and columns, they need an intuitive overview of the information they really care about.

Indian-born Mr Ranadivé was one of the first to think about this because he had seen the opposite in action—on a trading floor at Goldman Sachs, an investment bank, in the mid-1980s. The room looked like the warehouse of a disorganised computer store, Mr Ranadivé writes in his book “The Power of Now” (McGraw-Hill, 1999). In a business where every second counts, each desk was packed with as many as 18 separate monitors and several keyboards so that the trader could draw information from a range of 25 different, technologically incompatible news sources. He then had to aggregate all the information himself, often using nothing more high-tech than a pen and paper.

Let’s Take the Bus

The obvious answer to this IT chaos—to build one huge, integrated system—was impracticable, because it would have been impossible to get all those involved to agree to a common set of standards. Building a system for each trader would have been too costly and complex. Mr Ranadivé’s solution was what he calls “the information bus”—a way of reducing the data formats of the different news sources to a common denominator so that they could be displayed together.

This universal data conduit made it possible for traders to get exactly the information they wanted. The software does not send news items or stock quotes to individual traders, but “publishes” them to electronic addresses representing a subject, for example news.microsoft.nasdaq or equities.ibm.nyse. Traders can subscribe to these feeds and be updated automatically.

This way of distributing information, called “publish and subscribe”, became the basis for many digital trading systems on Wall Street. Today, the trading floor at Goldman Sachs looks very different. Only two monitors sit on a trader’s desk—one for the firm’s internal and PC applications and one for MarketSheet, a service that brings together all the information a trader needs on one screen: stock quotes, news feeds, earnings information, graphs.

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