Category Archives: strategy

Using Scenario Analysis to Predict the Future of the Semantic Web

Next week I will have the privilege of speaking to the Special Libraries Association (SLA) once again. The SLA audience is always interested and engaging, and I always have a lot of fun. I’m really excited to get another chance to talk two topics I really enjoy: the semantic web and scenario analysis.

The “semantic web” is a nebulous and imprecise term. It is generally intended to apply to a collection of technologies that unify digital content with meaningful meta-data. The semantic web makes it possible for computers to process textual or spoken information the way computers have traditionally processed numerical data. Semantic technologies make it possible for computers to “understand” the concepts that are embedded in written and spoken language.

The semantic web is a truly disruptive technology. It will make new products and services possible, many of which are futuristic or unimaginable today. Apple’s Siri, IBM’s Watson and the Wolfram Alpha search engine are contemporary examples of semantic technologies. Readers may be aware of the quirks and limitations of these tools. Disruptive technologies improve on logarithmic or exponential scale. Most critics assume that these technologies will improve on the same linear scale that defines most incumbent technologies.

The role of the information professional changed with the introduction of quality search engines, e.g. Google. Search engines made it easier for non-experts to find information. For librarians the search engine was a disruptive technology. The semantic web will make it possible for computers and search engines can understand the meaning of digital content. This will make sophisticated search, retrieval and processing of information possible for non-experts.

Scenario analysis is one of my favorite competitive intelligence and strategy tools. It’s a very advanced method for developing a vision about the future and enriching strategic dialog. Scenario analysis cuts through cognitive biases that hobble many organizations when they try to plan for long-term futures. When it is used well a scenario analysis can inform a robust set of early warning activities.

Is the semantic web a threat or an opportunity for information professionals? Anyone who wants to dig in their heels and protest the technology is likely to lose that battle. So how information professionals align their skills with the change the semantic web will bring? These are the questions my audience and I will explore. We’ll apply the tools of scenario analysis to create a view on four possible futures for the semantic web.

I hope to see you at SLA 2012 in Chicago.

If you are unable to see the SlideShare embed please feel free to download the PDF.

Noreena Hertz’ TED Talk on How to Use Experts

This is a great new TED talk from Noreena Hertz on how we can use experts in our modern world. She discusses how fMRIs show that listeners’ critical thinking regions of the brain shut down when they hear experts speak. She makes a compelling case about how we all (including experts) must maintain our skepticism and engage in managed dissent. I especially appreciate her points towards the end about the import of nuance, uncertainty and doubt. Think of all of the messes we as individuals and as a society would not find ourselves in if we followed this advice.

The Level(3) – Comcast Spat is not About Net Neutrality

Recently there has been a lot of coverage about a disagreement between Comcast and Level(3) related to carriage of streaming video from Netflix.  On November 29 Level(3) issued a press release that claimed “Comcast is effectively putting up a toll booth at the borders of its broadband Internet access network, enabling it to unilaterally decide how much to charge for content which competes with its own cable TV and Xfinity delivered content.”  These claims confuse peering with network neutrality.  This is also an interesting clash of two competitors’ distinct strategies.

Netflix Picks Level(3) for their Content Delivery Network

In  November Level(3) won a contract to become the primary Content Delivery Network (CDN) provider for Netflix (Reuters Canada Report).  Previously Akamai was Netflix’s primary CDN.  The switch to Level(3) is a BIG deal because Netflix streaming content can represent up to 20% of all downstream Internet traffic during primetime television watching hours.  That estimation comes from this report from network policy solutions provider Sandvine issued in October.

The FCC and pundits took much interest in Level(3)’s claims.  This attention comes at a sensitive time for broadband providers in general and Comcast specifically:

Comcast sent a letter to the FCC (pdf) explaining their perspective on the disagreement.  Comcast counterclaims “Level 3 is trying to game the process of peering – one that has worked well and consensually, without government interference, for over a decade – in order to gain a unique and unfair advantage for its own expanding CDN service.”

Everything You Could Ever Possibly Want to Know about CDNs

CDNs like Akamai, Level(3), Amazon, AT&T and Limewire deliver high-volume, delay intolerant Internet traffic faster than can be provided over a general purpose Internet backbone.  Your Netflix streaming movie, your YouTube video, your friends’ photos on Facebook and your iTunes download all rely on CDNs.  Generally CDNs consist of the following 3 components:

  1. CDN-owned Internetworking Protocol (IP)-based backbones that employ traffic prioritization technologies such as MPLS and DiffServ.  These technologies are used in corporate Internet backbones to differentiate the performance and priority of various types of traffic.
  2. Distributed servers that duplicate content with high-volumes of downloads  by end users.  When you click on today’s most-read article from the New York Times or “The History of Dance” on YouTube the content is being served up by a CDN server instead of the New York Times or YouTube servers.
  3. Interconnection with broadband providers.  The closer these interconnects are to the user requesting the content the faster and more efficiently the content can be served.  These interconnects are commercial arrangements between the CDNs and broadband providers.  The more interconnects a CDN has the more reliable the content delivery.  These interconnects are based on standard peering agreements (see more about peering below).

CDNs Improve the End User ExperienceThe purpose behind CDNs is to distribute infrastructure to achieve efficiency and improve end users’ experience.  Building a CDN is a capital expense, and there is a direct relationship between the capital deployed, network efficiency and the end user experience.  The better CDNs charge more to cover the up-front capital costs of building their superior CDN and can demand a premium because of the end user experience they are able to deliver.

Being Judged by a Jury of Your Internet Backbone Peers

Most people know that the Internet is a network of networks that use the Internetworking Protocol.  These include public nets, private nets, long-haul nets, metropolitan nets, local nets, fat nets, skinny nets, nets that climb on rocks…

Two nodes on the Internet do not have to be connected to the same network to exchange traffic.  As users access Google, Netflix, Facebook or any other sources of content available via the Internet the traffic to and from those sources traverses multiple networks.  Each “hop” comes with a (usually very minor) delay.

Networks are constantly trading traffic back and forth with one another.  Networks that exchange a lot of traffic with establish private peering interconnections to facilitate those exchanges.  The idea is that peers Network Provider A and Network Provider B will move roughly equivalent amounts of traffic over one another’s network.  If Network Provider B puts a lot of traffic onto Network Provider A’s network and carries a much smaller amount of traffic for Network Provider A, then Network Provider B will compensate Network Provider A.  Network Provider A incurs real and opportunity costs to deploy and manage additional Internet backbone capacity to carry Network Provider B’s traffic.

Peering is an industry-led balance of payments regime formulated to ensure fairness in an interconnected network infrastructure.  A balance of payments for terminating international telephone calls serves as a decades-old precedent and model for this approach.

Level(3) Needs More Interconnects to Serve Netflix Content to Comcast’s Customers

Prior to their winning the Comcast traffic, Level(3) was not a leading CDN, having only acquired the relatively small CDN business from Savvis in 2006 to augment their own wholesale Internet offerings.  Level(3) have not made major capital investments to their CDN by building the large number of interconnects with other Internet providers to provide a high-quality CDN.  Level(3)’s Internet backbone business was so much larger than their CDN business that peer Internet providers, including Comcast, usually compensated Level(3) because of the deficit in traffic they carried for Level(3) compared to the Internet traffic Level(3) carried for them.  Level(3)’s CDN was not putting anywhere near as much traffic onto Comcast’s networks as Comcast’s customers were putting on Level(3)’s backbone.

Akamai is far and away the leading CDN with network assets deployed very close to end users to minimize the number of network hops any of its customers’ content must make to reach end users.  CDN is Akamai’s core business.  In strategic terms, Akamai differentiate themselves by focus and differentiation based quality, while Level(3) pursue a cost leadership strategy.

When Netflix sought bids for a new CDN, Level(3) offered a low-cost alternative to Akamai.  No doubt the Netflix RFP specified service level agreement (SLA) including metrics of end users’ experience.  I am a Netflix customer, and often after I watch streaming content I receive an e-mail from Netflix asking me about the quality of the experience.  I can only imagine that one of the metrics to which Netflix CDN partners must abide is a percentage of customer respondents confirming an excellent or acceptable viewing experience.

I do not know whether or not the Level(3) team realized the capital investment that would be required to deliver those SLAs.  According to Ars Technica, Level(3) asked Comcast to eat the cost of nearly 30 additional CDN interconnects.  The Comcast team agreed that 6 new interconnects would address their peering traffic deficit with Level(3).  Additional interconnects and traffic would turn Comcast’s traffic deficit with Level(3) into a surplus and thus require Level(3) to compensate Comcast accordingly.  It was in response to this point that Level(3) issued their press release and sought relief from the FCC by claiming that Comcast was seeking to block its customers from accessing Netflix’s streaming media services.  Netflix is the lead in cutting edge services that are challenging traditional television program models such as Comcast’s cable television business.  Level(3) were suggesting that Comcast was using its market power in their broadband business to protect their cable television business.

Conclusion and What’s Next

What did Level(3) hope to achieve with their complaint?  I cannot say for certain.  Based on the long-standing peering regime I cannot imagine that the leadership at Level(3) assumed that there was any legitimacy to their claims.  There is no FCC action warranted in this circumstance, and no consideration of Level(3)’s complaint should be considered in the FCC and DoJ’s review of the Comcast merger with NBC Universal.

As I was considering this blog entry I wrote a series of tweets that outlined my arguments.  Fellow Titterer Pranav Desai commented that it’s perhaps time to re-examine the peering regime and that we will see more cases like the Level(3) – Comcast conflict as “over the top” television services compete with the television services offered by cable and telecommunications providers.  These are great points, and I really appreciate the discussion.

On the point of re-examining peering I can offer a definitive “maybe.”  It is not for Level(3) to unilaterally re-define a decade-old industry self-governing regime.  Level(3) undercut a competitor and then sought to offload the cost of delivering on their Netflix contract onto Comcast.  That’s not right.

What dimensions of competition will come to play as over-the-top media services such as Netflix, Hulu, iTunes and others eat into traditional television programming offered by Comcast, Verizon (my employer) and others who provide both television programming and broadband Internet connectivity?  The Netflix-Level(3)-Comcast dust-up is an example of the conflicts we might see in the coming years.

Words of Wisdom: Jacqueline Novogratz on Recognizing Indispensable People

Somewhere near the top of the pile of books I am slowly getting around to reading is Linchpin by Seth Godin.  The premise of the book, from what I hear in interviews with Seth and the interwebs chatter is how to be indispensable.  I’ve enjoyed several of Seth’s earlier books, and I’m intrigued by this topic.  When employment seems more fleeting than it has ever been in our collective life memories, creating a favorable differentiation for yourself can be critical to career success.

Several notable personalities have done their own brief interviews for Seth about how important it is to be a linchpin or how to be indispensable.  Jacqueline Novogratz, CEO of the Acumen Fund, gives this short explanation of how she recognizes indispensable people.  This is a great short summary of individual and organizational leadership.  Jacqueline talks about some of the same concepts that other intelligence professionals and I have been discussing, namely the ability of organizations to recognize new realities, experiment, iterate, tolerate risk and mistakes with the appropriate accountability and capablity to learn from smart mistakes.

Scenario Analysis: Planning for Uncertain Futures

As a follow-up to my presentation on scenario analysis in Shanghai last November, tonight I delivered a modified presentation to the Washington, DC chapter of the Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals.

Scenario analysis is a method for creating strategic foresight that overcomes the shortcomings of traditional forecasting methods. It helps strategists and decision makers create a shared vocabulary and baseline for quality strategic planning.

I’ve developed some surprising insights using this method. In this presentation I used rural broadband as a use case for the method. Even in a quick one-man scenario analysis (which breaks one of my cardinal rules for scenario analysis) I’ve created an intriguing picture of four possible futures for the rural broadband market. To that point, if you happen to have expertise in this topic, I would like to hear your opinion. Let’s keep the strategic conversation going!

My Pecha Kucha from the October 22 Intelligence Collaborative Event

You’ve seen the preview, now see the actual live and in-person Intelligence Collaborative Call to Action from the inaugural event we held in Washington, DC on October 22.  Special thanks to Eric Garland for working his digital video magic and making this video possible.

Intelligence Collaborative Inaugural Event 10/22 in Washington, DC

If you’re going to be in Washington, DC on the evening of Thursday, October 22 please join us for the inaugural event of the Intelligence Collaborative.  The title and the topic are “Social Media and Next Generation Intelligence.”  You can read more about the event and register here.

The Intelligence Collaborative is a nascent professional collaboration and networking group for intelligence professionals and those in related fields.  We are purposefully casting a very wide net in this group’s mission.  Our target audience encompasses professionals engaged or interested in commercial intelligence, government intelligence, military intelligence, investigative journalism, strategists of all flavors, fraud investigators and librarians.  I’m sure I’m leaving some people out in that summary, and if you feel remotely interested feel free to check things out.  The event is free, and you can read more about the concept originally launched by my friend Eric Garland on the Competitive Intelligence Community on Ning.  You can also take a view of Eric’s video introduction to the Intelligence Collaborative here:

There will be a brief set of presentations at tomorrow’s event.  One of the reasons these events will be brief is because we will be using the Pecha Kucha format: 20 slides that auto-advance every 20 seconds.  This has in itself been a great learning experience for me, because 20 seconds is NOT a lot of time.  You’ve got to be concise, get your points across very quickly and think very carefully about how you will pull everything together.  And you’ve got to practice like nobody’s business.  You can see a preview of my presentation here: