by Bill French
Chief Architect at Intelliscape
For more than a decade, business intelligence firms, publishing, integration platform companies, and database vendors have claimed high ground concerning "real-time" data, reporting, and all manner of information distribution. Companies in every business segment have enjoyed great success standing high atop the real-time heap. For the most part, real-time solutions were certainly faster compared to previous generation architectures.
Most of them are lying and more likely to be selling solutions that are seemingly real-time or near-real-time.
There's a difference between [seemingly] real-time data interchange and truly real-time performance. And while we're putting a finer point on the definition of real-time, we might also want to consider real-time architectures that also scale. After all, it's easy to say that your solution is real-time, but if only one person at a time can get real-time updates, the definition falls short in most business contexts.
This is a common performance characteristic. Your server in Los Angeles has data; your sales team spread across 120 cities need data. There are many ways to deliver critical information to the sales professionals at a variety of speeds. Delivering sales-related data in near-real-time is generally fine until, of course, your competitor updates their sales force slightly faster.
This is the moment you realize that near-real-time is adequate but not competitive.
Information delivery performance depends largely on the shelf-life of the information. Most data has a relatively moderate shelf life, but some content is worthless in less than a minute.
Information architects rarely consider the shelf-life of data, but there are new emerging requirements that will transform the shelf-life of information into a key competitive attribute.
We live in an ever-increasing real-time consumer economy; we expect information instantly. As an always-on society, fresh and informative content is considered a necessity, not a luxury. This expectation is wending its way into every aspect of business.
Until recently, near-real-time was about the best we could do. Even the most modernized integration and API architectures are incapable of moving data with truly real-time performance.
This has changed in the last year; truly real-time performance will soon be ubiquitous across many data platforms and web services.
The Promise of Real-Time Data
I recently completed a project that required rapid access to a list of 2 million companies over HTTP - a basic web app.
Under most circumstances - and this was initially the case - the client's IT group created a traditional architecture with a SQL database, and a RESTful integration. It performed reasonably well, but it didn't give users any sense of zippy performance.
I modified the app by using Firebase as the data store which allowed me to update web pages in about a quarter of a second and all without the heavy-handedness of a request-response architecture commonly used in modern web applications.
How is this possible?
Sockets. Instead of opening a socket for each request/response via an API, open a single socket and maintain it throughout the entirety of the user's session with the web app.
Publish-Subscribe (and then some)
Think of sockets as a pipe that your database has opened, and an endpoint that clients may subscribe to about specific data elements. It's like a wormhole for data providing a super-highway between two points.
This architecture makes it possible for dozens, hundreds, or tens of thousands of clients to receive the same (or different) data instantly - without any latency.
Client applications are able to specify what flows through the pipes and the real-time database is able to convey the desired information with true real-time performance.
This is the future of real-time analytics, but it's game-changing on two sides of the process:
This demonstrates a very important aspect of sockets; they are just as good at conveying information out to applications as they are at collecting information from those same applications.
Firebase, and other truly real-time platforms change everything. It's faster, simpler, and easier than ever to deliver solutions that are faster than [seemingly] fast - they're instant.
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