'Big Data' Muscle-Building: The CIO Interview with Scott Hicar of DigitalGlobe
What is the most valuable project, program or innovation your technology organization has delivered in the last 12 months?
DigitalGlobe is a satellite imagery company. We have a constellation of three satellites and are building a fourth. We take images of the earth and sell those to government customers around the world as well as to major portals like Google and Bing. We provide information based on our unique ability to look at the earth from space. With the tsunami in Japan, the earthquake in Haiti and Hurricane Katrina, we were the first set of eyes to see the entire event and show a picture of the impact areas.
One of the best things we have done in the last 12 months has to be our high-performance computing environment. When I joined the company, one of our challenges was scale. We are a big data company, so if we followed the commercial cost curve to continue to deliver these huge volumes of data, our costs would be way too high. We didn’t want to look at the company in three years and realize that we are one large data center.
So we developed our own high performance computing cluster, a combination of traditional CPUs with graphics processing units from the gaming world that will run imagery algorithms 10 or more times faster than before. We can create capacity on the fly and manage that capacity as our workload fluctuates. We are talking petabyte and teraflop scale, here. Inside of a homogenized virtual machines environment, we have built a way to dynamically create virtual machines as the load requires. This is becoming the core of our processing engine and the core of our factory.
The high performance cluster has created a 90 percent reduction in our computing costs. We have moved the whole model over to low cost, commoditized and horizontally scalable hardware.
Additionally, you would need trucks to deliver two petabytes of imagery to each of our customers, so we created our own geospatial cloud where we store and manage our content and give our customer access to it through Open Standards based protocols.
This allows us to expose our customers to the freshest imagery of our earth which we call our Global Basemap. We don’t move the content to the customer. No customer could handle the size, but they can see it online and make decisions on what they can see.
What does your technology organization do best?
We innovate at scale. It is not enough for us to have a neat idea; we need to be able to execute it at the petabyte level. We are building those Big Data muscles.
How will the CIO role in your organization be different in 10 years?
In this business, we are just starting to scratch the surface of what kinds of questions our global imagery is going to be able to answer. In 10 years, it will be less about producing the imagery; that will be table stakes; instead, the CIO role will be thinking about how to transform that imagery into information, creating value for our customers. We will have solved the scale and volume issues. It will be all about how to create real value from global imagery and do it in every increasing speeds of information delivery
Can you tell a brief story about some valuable advice you were given at some point in your career?
One of my mentors used to say that, no matter what the issue is, always take the time to step back from it and look at it from the angle of everyone in the room. The CFO is thinking, “Is this risky, is it worth the money?” the head of sales is thinking, ”Will this help me sell?” When my mentor went into the room with me, he would always find an angle I hadn’t thought of. He taught me that there are usually 7 to 10 angles if you really think it through.
What technology innovation or business trend are you most excited about?
Right now, it is virtualization capability and the ability to apply commodity hardware to tasks that used to be pretty siloed. The capability to virtualize commoditized compute gives me not just cost but flexibility. And in a company that deals with scale, I need the ability to marshal compute resources and bring that to the data. The data is the immovable object for us.
The CIO Paradox is a set of contradictions (IT “and” the business, for example) that can prevent CIOs from delivering maximum business value. How do you know when you have broken the Paradox?
At the end of the day, the CIO is usually the senior most technical person on the executive team and I am responsible for the execution of technology. But I cannot be measured on that. My peers are all measured by the value they contribute to the business. I want to be measured on that as well. That’s the crux of the CIO Paradox: in order to get to this level, you have worked hard to be a good technologist. But from here on out, you don’t want to be measured that way. You want to be measured on your contribution to business value
About Scott Hicar and DigitalGlobe
Scott M. Hicar joined DigitalGlobe in April 2009 and currently serves as Senior Vice President and CIO. Prior to joining DigitalGlobe, Scott was an independent consultant, and before that, from October 2006 to December 2007, he was Senior Vice President and CIO of Solectron Corporation, a global electronics manufacturing company for original equipment manufacturers. Prior to Solectron, from 1997 to 2006, Scott was Vice President of World Wide IT and CIO of Maxtor Corporation, a global manufacturer of hard disk drives. He holds a Bachelor of Business Administration degree from Ohio University.
DigitalGlobe is a leading global provider of commercial high-resolution earth imagery products and services. Sourced from its own advanced satellite constellation, DigitalGlobe’s imagery solutions support a wide variety of uses within defense and intelligence, civil agencies, mapping and analysis, environmental monitoring, oil and gas exploration, infrastructure management, Internet portals and navigation technology.
With its collection sources and comprehensive ImageLibrary (containing more than two billion square kilometers of earth imagery and imagery products) DigitalGlobe offers a range of on- and offline products and services designed to enable customers to easily access and integrate imagery into their business operations and applications.