Gianluigi Castelli, CIO of Italian oil giant Eni, has a very particular opinion about cloud computing. It has to be considered in a broader context, he says. “Let’s forget the hype and ideological way it is usually presented by the IT suppliers and let’s be practical.
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“Every IT organisation has to find the best way to transform its overall resources in order to attain agility, flexibility and meet business requirements. The cloud is likely to mature as a market and I believe that inside this new framework, you can get a whole lot of new opportunities.”
But he offers a caveat about comparing the Silicon Valley internet companies too closely with large, European corporate IT.
“Be aware,” says Castelli. “The cloud emerged as a model for the internet companies. Think about Google, Facebook, and so on. Those companies, and their ilk, were born in the cloud. That kind of infrastructure was the right one to deliver a perfectly new kind of services.
“But the enterprise world is different. Large utility companies and financial organisations have to address different kinds of users and different kinds of environments. As an oil company, for instance, we have to provision application and services to a well-defined number of users.”
Is it worth thinking about a self-service model? “Not really,” he says. “We are now transforming our IT architecture, from an infrastructural and platform perspective, but we don’t see any reason to go for software as a service. The self-provisioning model built in the cloud is not a good one for us. We have a closed community of users who work on specific and closed applications. We know exactly how many people are going to use a certain service, so we can configure it without taking a step further into the cloud paradigm.”
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Castelli does not like to talk much about cloud technology per se. “My priority and my true goal is to change the organisation into a digital enterprise,” he says. “That means integrating business processes and IT capabilities and becoming an agile company that can handle its business in a digital way, in a much faster and in a more intelligent and efficient style. We have to think digital from the beginning, unleashing the potential that is hidden in some unknown areas.”
Four megatrends of IT
Among the four megatrends that characterise current IT – mobile, social, cloud and big data – the latter seems to be the most promising in terms of benefits to Eni: from oil exploration to CRM systems, from integrated risk management to trading, from predictive maintenance to integrated operation, from built-in sensors to campaign management.
So how does Castelli see it? In-memory and multi-structured databases? “That’s only one part of the game,” he says. “A new wave of technology is coming onto the horizon: cognitive computing.”
The complexity and heterogeneity of data, much of it unstructured and non-proprietary, form the most challenging obstacle, and despite the improvements of the classic methods of analysis, the CIO thinks the construction of useful information out of disaggregated data is still only partially realised. Cognitive computing is the new frontier to get the potential to solve complex issues related to big data, he says.
“We are getting involved in developing new ways to get to a new degree of knowledge. We have to follow that direction if we really want to get real value out of multiple data. Cognitive systems tend to add human intelligence to the rigid and pure exercise that is addressed by the mainstream analytic world.
“The challenge? Integrating best-of-breed technology and real intelligence. We need to shift from a pure algorithmic approach to a natural one. Cognitive computing is a major step forward that opens up to a completely new world of information.”
Castelli sums up: “We want to become a digital enterprise and we want to exploit the opportunities provided by big data. But the complexity and diversity of our business require tools that further advance technological capabilities. I think we found the answer in cognitive computing and in the Watson project supported by IBM.”
Cognitive computing has already proved to be applicable in contexts such as American quiz shows (Jeopardy), medical diagnostics and risk analysis. The Watson initiative by IBM, supported by a powerful calculation capacity and Deep QA algorithms and software analysis, can interact with human beings in their own natural language and learn from experience.
Eni’s experiments with Watson are due to begin this summer. Its ambition is to create a basis for some larger-scale initiatives. Eni's investment in the pilot is set to be about €4m. “We are setting up a heterogeneous unit,” says Castelli. “We will bring in specific skills for every area where we want to apply Watson, then we will involve employees from the various business lines as we try to bring together highly diversified computing skills.”
Support for new oilfield exploration seems to be the most obvious choice for Eni. But, says Castelli, the projects are aimed at giving a broader perspective to cognitive computing, extending deeper and broader analysis coupled with speedier and more accurate decisions to further business areas such as customer support, reduced exploration costs, and minimised risk in trading.