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Extracting Business Ideas from IT Logs

Software finds hidden business insights in Web and phone logs, e-mail, and network traffic.
February 11, 2011

Many companies don’t realize it, but their IT infrastructure is constantly, automatically gathering a comprehensive picture of their whole business, in the form of everything from Web server and phone logs to internal network traffic to the e-mail system.

Malice mapped: Canadian telecom operator SaskTel uses Splunk to track people using their cell phones for file sharing, breaking the company’s terms of service. This map shows the location of people who use extremely large amounts of data, often an indicator of file sharing.

That valuable data is typically left to IT staff to worry about. But some software firms are trying to find ways to mine it for insights to guide the development of new ideas and strategies. Erik Swan, chief technology officer of Splunk, a software company in San Francisco, is on a mission to make it possible for organizations to collect and query every scrap of digital data they generate. “We don’t care about the format of your data,” says Swan. “Splunk can eat anything and indexes it all like a big recording device.”

For example, typing the name of a city into Splunk’s Google-like search text box might cause the program to show all phone call and website visitor logs containing that location. “In just a few minutes, I can call up a map that shows where our inbound phone calls come from, or where the most missed calls come from,” says Swan. “Because Splunk works in real time, I can even watch calls happening on that map too.” Such a search could help a company reorganize its call center to be more efficient or improve the service experienced by customers in a particular region, he says.

Swan says Splunk’s customer base includes approximately half the Fortune 100 plus the Department of Defense, which uses it for intelligence analysis, among other things. The tool may typically first appear in the hands of IT staff looking for a new way to explore logs from computing infrastructure, but it soon spreads, says Swan. “We’ve seen some of those IT geeks become real business heroes as a result, because they suddenly enable new business insights.”, which supplies consumers with information on new and used cars, provides an example. IT workers at the firm originally began using Splunk to better understand patterns of visits to the website—for example, to determine whether a sudden spike in traffic was a cyberattack or the result of an article that went viral—and to help track system logs. Today Edmunds uses Splunk for much more.

“We now provide data dashboards to business groups in the company to show them up-to-date information that helps them make decisions,” says John Martin, senior director of application operations at Edmunds. “The information that business groups need is in our IT logs, but it wasn’t being looked for.”

One such dashboard allows the editorial and marketing staff to track in real time which auto brands and models are attracting the most views. This allows the business to experiment with ways to be more responsive to what users are doing hour by hour. For example, ads could be shuffled to match what people are most interested in at any moment.

The Splunk software needs to be installed on only one computer in an organization’s network, and then it can be pointed toward whatever data stores—inside or outside the company—are of interest. The large, varied index that results can capture more about a company’s operations than any other tool, says Swan. Exploring the index can allow rapid identification of new and missed opportunities and provide real-time feedback on any attempt to exploit them.

Swan hopes that the power of a tool like Splunk’s will lead businesspeople to take a data-led approach to every decision or strategy. “There will soon be a generation walking around that knows the tools and data are there to ask any question at any time,” he says. “Those people will be able to move faster than the people that came before.”

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