Editor’s note: The search for intelligent life brings me back to Earth

June 9, 2013

This week we take a break from our usual programming to focus on two of the big technology trends shaking up businesses of all shapes and sizes — big data and cloud computing.

It doesn’t seem all that long ago that the concepts felt like novelties. I remember loading a screen saver on my desktop that linked my tiny machine to countless others in an effort to scan the heavens in a search for extraterrestrial life.

We never found anything.

At least as far as I know.

Now, big data and Internet-based computing seem very much part of daily life back here on Earth, revealing themselves in the weather maps, shopping offers, social media and traffic alerts that flow through apps and into our inboxes.

I can’t say all these systems are perfect.

We’re often better at explaining what happened than what’s to come. Amazon keeps offering me the same products I already considered and chose to pass up. I seem to find out about the accident ahead when I am stuck in the backup behind.

But give it time. The data crunching is just beginning. The federal government, for one, is unlocking massive troves of information, and who knows what insights can be gleaned when data from one agency can be merged with another’s, or thrown into a mixer with privately collected bits and bytes.

There’s plenty of policy implications. Can privacy be preserved? Can sensitive information be protected?

For now, businesses are betting big bucks such issues will be sorted out. Just last week, cloud-based IBM inked a billion-dollar plus agreement for the Dallas data center services firm SoftLayer Technologies and announced plans for a cloud services division. Salesforce announced its own $2.5 billion deal to buy an Indianapolis outfit called ExactTarget, which helps companies manage Internet marketing campaigns and other business operations.

Closer to home, it is difficult to find a firm not working on its big data or cloud strategy. Not too long ago, I met an attorney specializing in mergers and acquisitions who was assembling his own database of investor types, people he might match with a client.

“This is my big data,” he quipped.

Dan Beyers is the founding editor of Capital Business, The Washington Post’s go-to source for news about the region’s business community.
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