The market for Big Data/Analytics products and services is poised for a dramatic shift up into overdrive. As cloud-based storage prices contract, and new sources of data like IoT and social communications push the boundaries on what information will be collected, stored and analyzed, researchers are predicting significant future opportunity for enabling technologies in the Big Data field. Starting in 2014, and projecting out to 2026, for example, analyst firm Wikibon has calculated a GAGR of 14.4 percent, a rate of growth that compares pretty favourably with spending predictions for IT as whole, which today, on the whole, are relatively flat.
But for potential buyers of Big Data solutions, an equally significant question has emerged – what the heck to do with all this data, and how to manage it in a way that delivers value back to the organization? And for vendors looking to step in to help, a key question is how to create unique, customer-focused solutions that may rely on competencies that are not available internally? CenturyLink’s answer to this conundrum is threefold: build internal expertise, partner to deliver across competency gaps, and leverage existing capabilities to wrap the whole in a solution that creates new opportunity for the company while tackling customer challenges. As David Roth, director of solutions marketing for CenturyLink explained: “A lot of our solutions come about from taking the perspective of our customers and considering their needs. And we not only look at our core competencies and capabilities, but also at the expertise of our partner ecosystem, and try to map those to meet customer requirements.”
This solution orientation is part of a larger shift underway within CenturyLink. Known primarily as a communications provider (in US markets at least), the company has worked hard to diversify its business services offerings, beginning back in 2011 with acquisition of Savvis’ significant data centre assets. More recently, the company has announced its intent to exit the data centre market, a capital intensive business that been buffeted by competition from the increasingly commoditized IaaS offerings delivered by the large cloud service providers, and renew focus on other areas, such as managed services. As part of this new direction, the company has been developing capabilities in Big Data, analytics and data management. CenturyLink’s acquisition and integration of Cognilytics and partnership with SAP are case in point – and this summer, the company reinforced its intent to continue to build use cases (which currently sit at 60+ different methodologies) in the Big Data areas with announcement of an additional niche application, based on location-based analytics.
CenturyLink Location-Based Analytics, is a mobile engagement, analytics and marketing solution for owners and operators of physical spaces. Essentially, the solution allows the user to gather customer and location data from users’ mobile devices or from sensors connected to WiFi endpoints, to monitor traffic and location information, and to distribute personalized messages to customers within the venue. It works by establishing a central hub – an analytics and marketing portal – that CenturyLink clients can use to monitor where customers congregate, to market products and services via a personalized experience created through the use of analytics, and ultimately to monetize this data in real time. Sports venues, amusement parks, college campuses, retail destinations and transportation hubs are just a few of the ‘spaces’ in which CenturyLink VP of product management Troy Trenchard believes users can “make deeper emotional connections with individual customers in real-time… [to] cultivate a high degree of customer loyalty that can translate to improved sales and profitability.”
The new solution is composed of capabilities delivered by three partners: the portal features analytics reporting and marketing tools (including engagement tactics, such as individualized messages, offers, wayfinding apps and activity suggestions) based on technology developed by Purple, a recognized leader in “intelligent spaces” software; and the application is built on high-capacity Meraki WiFi access points and security appliances from Cisco, which have been bundled into CenturyLink’s Managed WiFi solution. CenturyLink will manage the solution end-to-end, including all the necessary hardware, software licenses, installation and monitoring for adherence to SLAs. According to Roth, “Our sales force is going to market with it [co-selling with the partners, though the solution essentially white labels Purple and Meraki], and our managed services teams will be supporting it. They will design the solution, i.e. configuring where the WiFi endpoints need to be in the facility, implement it, train the customers on the solution, and provide post-implementation support to the owner/operator of the facility, including servicing the WiFi points and the analytics/marketing portal. They will also provide support to the end user visitor to ensure easy connect to the WiFi.” In addition, the CenturyLink Analytics consulting team, which is part of Global IT Services, will also provide support on the development of use cases that align data analysis with the creation of new business value.
Today, the solution has been architected to leverage the cloud delivery resources of the partners. But as Charles Stallings, solutions architect at CenturyLink, explained, the company is looking to build greater delivery flexibility: “It is in our roadmap to have the cloud resources reside in the public or private portions of the cloud that facilitate the customer’s best use of the solution, as well as facilitate the future analytics and security requirements as venue operators requirements adjust over time.” In other words, to develop greater accommodation of customers’ hybrid requirements, to leverage the customer’s own cloud infrastructure, and potentially even on-premise deployments, though Stallings noted that for the majority of operators, and those with multiple venue locations that are geographically dispersed in particular, a cloud-based approach is most appropriate.
Similarly, CenturyLink is also looking to enable more customer choice in the data storage and data management pieces of the Location offering. According to Stallings, “Our solution is based on a data lake and CenturyLink cloud storage architecture and applications, which does include Hadoop. But as we continue to deploy this technology with venue operators, we are encountering unique use cases that have stirred us to consider multiple technologies in use by ourselves, Cisco/Meraki and Purple – our partners for this solution. We’ve developed the architecture in a manner that allows for flexible choices in storage, database, data cleansing and security technologies.”
This future flexibility, aimed at empowering customers to align the solution’s advanced storage, cloud and networking capabilities with individual needs bodes well for broader solution deployment. In the meantime, Roth, describes the packaged solution through which CenturyLink currently delivers the new capability as a “more tangible go-to market offer” than are “one off” offerings in which CenturyLink may help customers build their own solution. But CenturyLink is not unique in marketing a solution that gathers data via WiFi for analysis that supports a customer’s monitoring and push marketing agenda – in entertainment venues, a fact that begs the question on differentiation. According to Roth, CenturyLink’s secret sauce lies in the company’s core competencies – in its managed services, its networking and hosting capabilities, and in its ability to expand the scope of offerings that can be deployed to support customer scale and growth. “By being able to deliver a comprehensive solution that includes all WiFi endpoints, software, licenses, installation, management and ongoing support, we are able to address real business challenges, and by providing Big Data consulting expertise, we are able to align the solution with real business needs, building the use cases that create real business value.”
 Gartner’s forecast for worldwide IT spending growth was revised in July 2016 to 0%, up from .5% in the previous quarter.