Strategic Theme # 5/5: Machine Learning

[tl;dr Business intelligence techniques coupled with advanced data semantics can dynamically improve automated or automatable processes through machine learning. But 2015 is still mainly about exploring the technologies and use cases behind machine learning.]

Given the other strategic themes outlined in this blog (lean enterprise, enterprise modularity, continuous delivery & system thinking), machine learning seems to be a strange addition. Indeed, it is a very specialist area, about which I know very little.

What is interesting about machine learning (at least in the enterprise sense), is that it heavily leans on two major data trends: big data and semantic data. It also has a significant impact on the technology that is the closest equivalent to machine learning in wide use today: business intelligence (aka human learning).

Big Data

Big data is a learning area for many organisations right now, as it has many potential benefits. Architecturally, I see big data as an innovative means of co-locating business logic with data in a scalable manner. The traditional (non big-data) approach to co-locating business logic with data is via stored procedures. But everyone knows (by now) that while stored-procedure based solutions can enable rapid prototyping and delivery, they are not a scalable solution. Typically (after all possible database optimisations have been done) the only way to resolve performance issues related to stored procedures is to buy bigger, faster infrastructure. Which usually means major migrations, etc.

Also, it is generally a very bad idea to include business logic in the database: this is why so much effort has been expended in developing frameworks which make the task of modelling database structures in the middle tier so much easier.

Big data allows business logic to be maintained in the ‘middle’ tier (or at least not the database tier) although it changes the middle tier concept from the traditional centralised application server architecture to a fundamentally distributed cluster of nodes, using tools like SparkMesos and Zookeeper to keep the nodes running as a single logical machine. (This is different from clustering application servers for reasons of resilience or performance, where as much as possible the clustering is hidden from the application developers through often proprietary frameworks.)

While the languages (like Pig, Hive, Cascading, Impala, F#, Python, Scala, Julia/R, etc)  to develop such applications continue to evolve, there is still some way to go before sophisticated big-data frameworks equivalent to JEE /Blueprint and Ruby on Rails on traditional 3-tier architectures are developed.  And clearly ‘big data’ languages are optimised for queries and not transactions.

Generally speaking, traditional 3-tier frameworks still make sense for transactional components, but for components which require querying/interpreting data, big data languages and infrastructure make a lot more sense. So increasingly we can see more standard application architectures using both (with sophisticated messaging technologies like Storm helping keep the two sides in sync).

An interesting subset of the ‘big data’ category (or, more accurately, the category of databases knowns as NoSQL), are graph databases. These are key for machine learning, as will be explained below. However, Graph databases are still evolving when it comes to truly horizontal scaling, and while they are the best fit for implementing machine learning, they do not yet fit smoothly on top of ‘conventional’ big data architectures.

Semantic Data

Semantic data has been around for a while, but only within very specialist areas focused on AI and related spheres. It has gotten more publicity in recent years through Tim Berners-Lee promoting the concept of the semantic web. It requires discipline managing information about data – or meta-data.

Initiatives like Linked Data, platforms like datahub.io, standards like RDF, coupled with increasing demand for Open Data are helping develop the technologies, tools and skillsets needed to make use of the power of semantic data.

Today, standard semantic ontologies – which aim to provide consistency of data definitions – by industry are thin on the ground, but they are growing. However, the most sophisticated ontologies are still private: for example, Wolfram Alpha has a very sophisticated machine learning engine (which forms part of Apple’s Siri capability), and they use an internally developed ontology to interpret meaning. Wolfram Alpha have said that as soon as reliable industry standards emerge, they would be happy to use those, but right now they may be leading the field in terms of general ontology development (with mobile voice tools like Apple Siri etc close behind).

Semantic data is interesting from an enterprise perspective, as it requires knowing about what data you have, and what it means. ‘Meaning’ is quite subtle, as the same data field may be interpreted in different ways at different times by different consumers. For example, the concept of a ‘trade’ is fundamental to investment banking, yet the semantic variations of the ‘trade’ concept in different contexts are quite significant.

As regulated organisations are increasingly under pressure to improve their data governance, firms have many different reasons to get on top of their data:

  • to stay in business they need to meet regulatory needs;
  • to protect against reputational risk due to lost or stolen data;
  • to provide advanced services to clients that anticipate their needs or respond more quickly to client requests
  • to anticipate and react to market changes and opportunities before the competition
  • to integrate systems and processes efficiently with service providers and partners both internally and externally
  • to increase process automation and minimise unnecessary human touch-points
  • etc

A co-ordinated, centrally led effort to gather and maintain knowledge about enterprise data is necessary, supported by federated, bottom-up efforts which tend to be project focused.

Using and applying all the gathered meta-data is a challenge and an opportunity, and will remain high on the enterprise agenda for years to come.

Business Intelligence

Business intelligence solutions can be seen as a form of ‘human learning’. They help people understand a situation from data, which can then aid decision making processes. Eventually, decisions feed into system requirements for teams to implement.

But, in general, business intelligence solutions are not appropriate as machine learning solutions. In most cases, the integrations are fairly unsophisticated (generally batch ETL), and computational ability is optimised for non-technical users to define and execute. The reports and views created in BI tools are not optimised to be included as part of a high performance application architecture, unlike big data tools.

As things stand today, the business intelligence and machine learning worlds are separate and should remain so, although eventually some convergence is inevitable. However, both benefit from the same data governance efforts.

Conclusions

Machine learning is a big topic, which ideally executes in the same context as the other strategic themes. But for 2015, this technology is still in the ‘exploratory’ stages, so localised experiments will be necessary before the technology and business problems they actually solve can be fully exploited.

Strategic Theme # 5/5: Machine Learning