Betting big on the 'SMAC stack'

The notion of combining social, mobile, analytics and cloud into one integrated architectural pipe is gaining traction.

globe networking internet
Thinkstock

The concept of creating an IT infrastructure that supports and integrates social, mobile, analytics and cloud is gaining ground, and some industry experts and IT executives are convinced that the next generation of IT will revolve around SMAC components as the key foundational technologies.

"We see a lot companies focusing on one or more of these trends. But it's when they converge that it becomes really interesting," says Ed Anderson, research vice president at Gartner.

"It's like an industrial revolution of sorts, where you're achieving the digital critical mass of some key foundational elements," Anderson says. "We have this platform in cloud services that presents us with unlimited capacity of computational resources. With mobile we have this unprecedented ability to put connectivity into the hands of individuals and devices. Analytics gives us specific insights we never had before, and social media makes it all personal."

The combination of these four things creates a synergistic effect where the sum of the four is clearly greater than the individual pieces, Anderson says.

IDC is pushing the notion of a "third platform," which is built on the four SMAC components. "These technologies need to be seen together, as the emerging new technology platform for growth and innovation," says Frank Gens, senior vice president and chief analyst at IDC. "Over the next decade, developers will create hundreds of thousands of new enterprise solutions -- the next generation of core and 'killer' apps." The SMAC stack "is becoming the new mainstream for enterprise and consumer IT."

IT execs: Buying in

It's one thing for the analysts to see the possibilities, but IT executives at some very large firms are buying into SMAC also.

cheriyan anil sti 0312 SunTrust Banks

"It is clear to me that the next generation of IT, both in the banking industry and beyond, will revolve around SMAC," says Anil Cheriyan, CIO at SunTrust Banks.

"It is clear to me that the next generation of IT, both in the banking industry and beyond, will revolve around SMAC," says Anil Cheriyan, CIO at SunTrust Banks Inc., an Atlanta-based banking company.

"The explosion in Internet usage, evolution of smarter handheld devices, preponderance of structured and unstructured data and the commoditization of infrastructure technologies makes all four technologies critical pillars of the new way of doing things," Cheriyan says. The challenge most companies will face will be how best to leverage these newer technologies.

SunTrust's overall goal is to provide a sense of financial well-being for clients, and SMAC will be a big part of that. The company began a major business transformation about two years ago to streamline and more closely align IT to the business.

Part of this includes developing and delivering mobile banking products and services for clients, using analytics and social media to gain deeper insights into customers, and deploying cloud services for infrastructure, desktops and productivity tools.

Two years ago, the company embraced SMAC as core transformational components of five strategic capabilities needed to support its business strategy: digital channels, data and analytics, process and operations, core shared services and infrastructure refresh.

SunTrust considers its transformation as a five-year journey "that has to deliver results in the here and now," Cheriyan says. The pace of change will depend on several factors, he says, including legacy environments, business pressures, expense constraints and competitive and regulatory influences.

"It is highly likely that in five years, while we will still be working on the SMAC stack, we will be embarking on newer solutions that have yet to emerge," Cheriyan says. "The one thing that all of us in technology have learned is that change is constant."

Analytics still a question mark

Tenneco Inc., a Lake Forrest, Ill., manufacturer and distributor of products for the automotive and commercial truck markets, is also optimistic about the SMAC concept.

bill haser Tenneco

)"SMAC tools bring a whole realm of new capabilities to the IT world," says Bill Haser, vice president and CIO at Tenneco.

"SMAC tools bring a whole realm of new capabilities to the IT world," says Bill Haser, vice president and CIO at Tenneco. "These tools do have the potential to deliver tremendous value to the business," Haser says. While, as with most new trends, "there has been some oversell, CIOs who fail to realize the potential are selling their companies short. Going forward SMAC will need to be part of the portfolio, but looking at past trends it will be in combination with pre-SMAC technologies for all companies with significant legacy investment."

Tenneco has adopted cloud and social platforms during the last few years, Haser says, and is planning to significantly expand its mobile technology capabilities in the next 18 months. "We are looking for opportunities for improving analytics, but the value propositions in this area are not yet clear to us," he says.

While Haser does not see a necessity for all of the technologies to be connected on a single platform from one vendor, he thinks there is a lot of potential for coordinating cloud, mobile, social and analytics tools.

There are clear examples of where a SMAC platform would make sense, Haser says. One would be to link the company's Salesforce.com cloud-based customer relationship management (CRM) applications with analytics tools and make these available to users through a mobile platform.

"We would need to be able to securely integrate these services into each other and into our back-end platforms," Haser says. "That's what we're focusing on."

Advocating SMAC for several years

Yet another company exploring SMAC is F. Hoffmann-La Roche Ltd., a global healthcare company with headquarters in Switzerland.

"Our IT enterprise architecture team has been advocating cloud computing, social, mobile and analytics since 2007," says Andy Wang, principal enterprise architect at the company. "We see it as a strategic advantage to leverage these technologies to enable the business to do things faster, cheaper and better."

Genentech, a U.S. biotech company owned by Hoffmann-La Roche, was an early corporate user of Google Apps, Apple's iPhone and Salesforce.com, Wang says.

"Since being acquired by Roche, we have helped [the company] move over to Google Apps, iPhone/iPad, and Salesforce.com," Wang says. Roche now has 100,000 users on Google, 60,000-plus with Apple iOS mobile devices and about 20,000 users on Salesforce. Roche is also leveraging social networks for its various lines of business.

Roche also has "numerous" big data business projects "with the latest visualization tools to provide real-time insight into our business data," Wang says.

Getting help with the end-user piece

CapGemini has helped Roche with change management for the move to Google Apps. "As with any new disruptive technologies that touch the users, there is always resistance," Wang says. "CapGemini has been great in developing marketing and communication strategies as well as collaterals for us to use as part of the rollout project, to break down resistance and garner support."

The strategy is not to build one monolithic platform that integrates the disparate SMAC services into a single entry point for users, Wang says. "Rather, much akin to what you see in the consumer mobile application area, [we're] building applications that leverage SMAC services for added value to specific business functions -- or in some cases the entire company," he says.

One example is a mobile application Roche built called Peeps. It's a corporate directory that shows employee data such as contact information, where people are located and other information. This app integrates with Google Calendar to provide additional information such as availability for meetings, and it can also leverage messaging services on the iPhone.

"The application has analytics embedded so we can track usage of the app and understand what our users [like or dislike] about certain features, so we can improve it in the future," Wang says. The company plans to extend the app to show employees' social network profiles and activities and is investigating tying it into a geolocation system to quickly locate users.

Still early days

To be sure, it's still quite early in the game for extensive SMAC platform offerings in the market, let alone implementations at enterprises.

"There are a few platforms available today, but not widely," Gartner's Anderson says. "Most vendors have expertise in one of these areas, and some have expertise in multiple technologies. But it's pretty new to see it all come together."

Some of the major consulting, systems integration and outsourcing firms, such as Deloitte, Accenture and CapGemini are offering their own versions of SMAC platforms or services to clients, as part of a digital transformation strategy.

Given all this activity, experts following the trend say the concept of SMAC is more real than hype. "There's always hype with important new technologies, but the reality factor [with this] is much greater," IDC's Gens says."Anyone today who broadly characterizes these technologies as 'hype' is like someone in the 1980s dismissing PCs and client/server apps as hype."

"I'd say it's cutting edge," Anderson adds. "We certainly see practical implementations of this" happening soon. "But keep in mind, he warns, that "it's a technology evolution or revolution, and to really take advantage of this requires a pretty [substantial] change in the way business operations are conducted. There needs to be some re-invention, and that's what will hold back a lot of organizations."

Some companies are already beginning to operate in a "bi-modal" manner, Anderson says, where one part of the IT organization is focused on maintaining traditional systems that help run the business and another group is pursuing projects that take advantage of the newer technologies that make up SMAC. He expects to see SMAC platforms become much more common over the next five years or so -- particularly in industries such as financial services and government -- and become mainstream after that.

Keeping the best of the old

That's not to say anything older than SMAC automatically gets tossed.

"There's no doubt that there will be legacy technologies as well," Anderson says. "We've already learned that the cloud is not an ideal solution for every problem, and there are a lot of instances where legacy systems might be best to run things. I can see it being a hybrid world [that involves] these four key technologies and also leverages the best of what current environments offer."

Legacy apps "will continue to be important, as many continue to support large portions of enterprises' operations," Gens agrees. "But their relative importance will gradually diminish over the coming decade."

As these systems age, many enterprises will choose to replace them with cloud-based alternatives, Gens says. Even more significant, developers will use the SMAC stack to create a new generation of strategic systems that weren't possible with older technologies.

"Ten years from now, it's very likely that 50% to 75% of an enterprise's critical apps/solutions will be ones that were newly created," Gens says.

SunTrust's Cheriyan says it's all part of the IT continuum. "While I expect SMAC technologies to be a driving force for the next few decades, each day new technologies emerge and consumer preferences progress with them," Cheriyan says. "Some legacy technologies may continue to be important, but they too will evolve as technology advances."

Businesses that succeed with SMAC will do so by balancing the demands and benefits of new technologies with those of legacy systems to provide products, services and interactions that clients value, Cheriyan says. "The SMAC evolution is clearly underway," he says. "It is transforming the way we interact and make decisions."

Related:

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon