Industrial Data Lake at GE
There was no single moment of clarity, no epiphany for General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt. Rather, the new reality presented itself gradually until there was no mistaking it. By 2010, it was clear to Immelt that GE needed to embrace its future as a digital industrial company.
The nature of GE’s customers were changing just as the nature of its products were changing, Immelt said. Customers wanted a partner that helped them deliver better outcomes—like less unplanned downtime and longer lifespans for their industrial equipment—rather than just selling them products. At the same time, the company’s aircraft engines, wind turbines and other industrial equipment were increasingly creating massive quantities of data that gave GE the raw material it needed to create those outcomes.
“This isn’t a question of whether we’re a software company or an industrial company. Industrial companies are going to become software companies,” Immelt said. “In order to be a better industrial company, we couldn’t allow our digital future to be created by others.”
In 34 years at GE, this is the single most important change I’ve ever driven inside the company. We’ve invested massively to make this digital transformation.”Jeffrey Immelt, CEO, General Electric
Taking the reins of its digital future required GE to undergo massive transformation, both technologically and culturally. From a technology perspective, this meant developing a software platform to support the burgeoning Industrial Internet. In contrast to the consumer internet, the Industrial Internet refers to the interconnection of industrial equipment and other high value, complex machines that support mission critical market sectors like energy, transportation, and healthcare.
The stakes are high in the Industrial Internet. It’s one thing if your cell phone drops a call. It’s quite another if a gasket bursts on oil rig or a hacker gains access to the electric grid. So GE knew the platform needed to be robust, resilient and highly secure. At the same time, the platform also needed to support developer productivity and enable software engineers to iteratively build and run high-performance analytical and operational applications.
GE teamed up with Pivotal to build Predix, its Industrial Internet platform, on Pivotal Cloud Foundry—which is an infrastructure agnostic, cloud-native platform that simplifies tasks like automating, scaling and managing modern applications. It allows software and application developers to spend their time writing code instead of dealing with infrastructure and administration headaches. Pivotal Cloud Foundry takes care of those tasks itself. It is also a highly secure and self-healing platform, meaning it can stand up to the most demanding compliance requirements and service level agreements.
To make the most of the platform, GE also needed to reinvent its culture. GE is famous for its near fanatical adherence to Six Sigma, a management technique that GE describes as “a highly disciplined process that helps us focus on developing and delivering near-perfect products and services.” While Six Sigma has served GE well for years, modern software development practices require a different approach, one embodied by the phrase “Agile.”
Rather than spending weeks and months designing the perfect application before any work begins, developers in cloud-native environments instead use Agile methodologies to build and deploy products in small, incremental steps, gathering and responding to user feedback along the way. This iterative approach to software development has proven to result in better products that users love, but it requires dramatic changes to the ways most software developers operate, communicate and even think. Agile methodologies and related approaches, such as pair programming, require developers to have empathy for their fellow coders as well as for the users of their applications. Developers must be invested in the user’s success, not just on “completing” the project.
Agile software development was a new concept for GE, so it worked closely with Pivotal to instill the processes and values in GE’s developers. Pivotal is a pioneer in the development of Agile methodologies, pair programming, test-driven development, Lean Startup techniques, and other modern software development practices. It’s Pivotal Labs organization cut its teeth developing this approach with some of Silicon Valley’s most well-known startups and Internet giants, and today Pivotal works with many Fortune 500 enterprises teaching enterprise developers the tenants of modern software development.
“Pivots teach and learn from each other, demonstrating empathy, trust, respect, communication, feedback, and collaboration at every turn,” is how Pivotal CEO Rob Mee describes the approach. Pivotal developers did the same with GE, sitting side-by-side with the company’s developers helping both build Predix and simultaneously teaching them how to apply Agile methodologies and adopt this collaborative approach to software development.
Today, GE’s Predix is the leading Industrial Internet platform, supporting hundreds of applications and enabling companies to be more productive, efficient and, ultimately, more profitable. Among its many use cases, using predictive analytics to prevent unplanned downtime has proven an extremely valuable application for GE customers in sectors like energy and transportation. “No unplanned downtime doesn’t sound sexy, but that’s worth tens of billions of dollars in productivity,” Immelt said. For some GE customers, Immelt said, “The difference between success and failure is just one more hour of uptime per week.”
GE customers are also building applications on Predix for use cases as diverse as optimizing wind farm performance, helping doctors make more accurate diagnosis, and improving aircraft engine efficiency.
With Predix and its commitment to a modern approach to software development, GE itself is well positioned for the digital future. “In 34 years at GE, this is the single most important change I’ve ever driven inside the company,” Immelt said. “We’ve invested massively to make this digital transformation.”