Few people can fathom the sheer size of the World Wide Web, the most visible part of the Internet where we shop, meet friends, read news and watch movies. But the Web will soon be a minnow when compared to the immensity of the Industrial Internet, a fast-growing network connecting machines and devices of all types: from thermostats to thermal power plants.
GE spent $1 billion over the last few years to develop Predix, a cloud-based software platform that has allowed GE to securely collect data from jet engines, gas turbines and MRI scanners, analyze it and then use the results to make them run better. Last fall GE gave access to Predix to a select group of partners and customers like Pitney Bowes, which has used it to optimize massive mail machines that can sort 900 million letters in a year.
This morning, the company took the next step at the Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona and opened Predix to everyone. “Many companies are looking at what we are doing and they would like to do the same thing independent of GE,” says Harel Kodesh, chief technology officer of GE Digital and one of the architects of Predix. “To unlock the platform’s full potential, we knew we needed to allow developers outside of GE to get their hands on Predix. After all, where would the consumer app and solution ecosystem be without communities of external developers building for iOS, Android or Linux.”
GE also announced in Barcelona a new “digital alliance” with companies like Intel, Capgemini and Infosys, who see Predix as a revenue stream and a valid business opportunity. “There is a huge amount of interest in the Industrial Internet and in the solutions we are offering,” Kodesh says. “People realize that GE is not just another random company that decided to be a software company. We bring something that goes beyond software. We bring the deep, intimate understanding of how the assets can become part of the Internet.” Read our Q&A with Kodesh we conducted on the eve of the Barcelona announcements.
GE Reports: What is Predix?
Harel Kodesh: Predix is an operating system for the Industrial Internet. It’s not that different from the operating system that you have in your phone or your laptop. But it can handle a lot of data coming from a lot of places at once and keep it secure. We call the huge amount of data hyperscale. Predix also includes features that allow you to develop and run applications that are optimized for the Industrial Internet.
GER: How much data are you talking about?
HK: We have exabytes of data coming in every month. Keep in mind that as operating system plumbers, we do not tell our customers how to build their applications. In health care, for example, if you want to ingest an MRI image, you run 2 to 3 gigabytes per image. If you store tens of thousands of them, you do the numbers. I think that in the next five years, the Industrial Internet will break the zettabyte barrier, which is 1,000 exabytes. (In 2009, the entire World Wide Web contained 500 exabytes.)
GER: How is GE using Predix today?
HK: The GE Health Cloud is one application. It’s something the healthcare team created to support the distribution and manipulation of images. In the energy sector, we are helping Qatar’s RasGas run its liquefied natural gas plant. The digital system allows the operator to know much more about what’s happening in their shop. Most of our businesses are already using it, and we are starting to see the applications getting built. Mind you, this is a very young system, but the ramp-up rate is pretty steep.
GER: You have opened Predix to all users. Why?
HK: Marc Andreessen said that software is eating the world. We see a lot of software enhancements to what used to be industrial companies. In fact, many companies are looking at what we are doing and they would like to do the same thing independent of GE. At the same time, there is a broad spectrum of industrial applications, like running elevators, we would like to target that go beyond what GE is using. To unlock the platform’s full potential, we knew we needed to allow developers outside of GE to get their hands on Predix. After all, where would the consumer app and solution ecosystem be without communities of external developers building for iOS, Android or Linux.
GER: How do you convince those companies to join you?
HK: When you make an operating system generally available to everybody, you have to solve three major issues. You have to make sure that the system is robust. Otherwise you will spend all of your revenues on customer support. The system has to operate 24/7. We also had to make sure that we could use Predix to run a commercial operation and be able to bill customers and also allow them to review their invoices. Basically, you have to be able to register and also to swipe your credit card. Finally, Predix has to scale. It’s very difficult to get that sense if you have one user. We want to assure people that it’s going to run even when they start piling applications on top of it. That’s why we ran the system through beta and limited availability phase last year to make sure that it’s ready for prime time.
GER: Who tested it?
HK: We talked to a lot of people, including executives at Pitney Bowes and Toshiba and LIXIL in Japan. LIXIL manufactures bathroom fixtures, and they used Predix to manage their own maintenance scheduling. Keep in mind that it was a handholding exercise. People came to us and we signed an agreement with them. But now it’s strong enough to just register and go. Look, you don’t have to call Microsoft or Amazon every time you want to use their systems. Predix is the same.
GER: What makes Predix stand out?
HK: We are different. We are only taking industrial players. It’s not because our systems cannot run social apps, but we want to make sure that the cloud is as sterile as it can be for the Industrial Internet. Elevated security is the name of the game. Here’s an example: If you buy a million computing cycles, the owner of a normal operating system will actually give you 900,000 and keep 100,000 for security, administration and other functions. We will give you 500,000 and keep the rest for security. You are getting much more security built in, and obviously you have to pay a little bit more for the cycles. This makes it fundamentally different from any other system. Finally, there are all kinds of structures in the system that are driven by Industrial Internet use cases. For example, we are working with services such as Workflow that manage the flow of patients and keep their records. We have to support potentially hundreds of millions of workflows. We need distributed architecture to do that, but we couldn’t find anything like that on the market. So we had to build it ourselves, but in such a way so we would be able to scale it without a limit.
GER: GE Digital also announced the Global Alliance program today. How is different from the Industrial Internet Consortium?
HK: The two groups serve different needs, and they are both doing great. The IIC is a strategic technology body seeking to standardize components of the Industrial Internet. Our competitors are part of it. Like any consortium, there’s no allegiance that you have to swear before you come in. The Alliance is different. It’s much more commercial and tighter. The members will deploy Predix directly and also through allies like telecommunications service providers that are not going to compete with us. They see Predix as a revenue stream and a valid business opportunity.GER: Who are the Alliance members?
HK: The Alliance has a lot of big names coming in, including Intel, Infosys, Deloitte Digital and others. There is a huge amount of interest in the Industrial Internet and in the solutions we are offering. People realize that GE is not just another random company that decided to be a software company. We bring something that goes beyond software. We bring the deep, intimate understanding of how the assets can become part of the Internet. The Industrial Internet is much more massive than the consumer Internet. It’s also newer, so people don’t associate it with Internet at all. It’s a whole new ballgame.
GER: What’s Predix going to look like in a year?
HK: You’ll see tens of thousands of developers working on Predix. That will force us to become an at-scale software company. You’ll see our data centers hosting many, many petabytes of industrial data. The ecosystem will also start feeding on itself, and you’ll see more and more interesting applications. If you look at the Internet as we know it circa 1996, you are at the release of Windows ’95 that allowed browsers to run and launched the Internet revolution. You are going to see things changing. The magic is in the numbers, and you are going to see a very vibrant developer community.