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While Sears struggles, its little-known big data division is gaining heat
While Sears struggles to right its long-suffering retail business, its little-known data analysis and management unit, MetaScale, has become a sought-after “big data” player.
MetaScale, housed at Sears’ headquarters in northwest suburban Hoffman Estates, sells open-source software tools that let clients burrow through their data storehouses at warp speed and figure out how to best promote their products and services — all without jeopardizing the data’s security.
The company’s name is a play on “metadata,” or data about data that reveals the contents and context of data files.
MetaScale won’t divulge revenue and growth figures or name its clients.
But CEO Phil Shelley, who is marking his one-year anniversary leading the venture, and as Sears chief technology officer, has become one of the most sought-after geek therapists on the IT leadership speaking circuit.
“People want to learn how Sears is using its innovative techniques to manage and drive value from data,” he says. “People are asking us, ‘What did you do? Can you help us get started?’”
Sears is trying to capitalize on the rush to big data as many companies look to jump on the beat their rivals to the punch. After all, shoppers use their smartphones to check prices, access real-time bargains and find deals online while shopping in stores, all the while expressing concern about their privacy and data security.
MetaScale responds with serious hand-holding for its business clients. It writes code, stores and secures data, and builds customized data-analysis systems for a growing number of clients in industries as diverse as insurance, railroads, health care, oil and gas, information technology and smart electric grids.
“We do the code development and code deployment to make the systems work… and we might crunch the data in a minute when traditional tools would take an hour,” says Shelley, 56, a native of Britain’s central Midlands area who holds a PhD in biomedical engineering. “We run this stuff in production every day.”
How would a Sears company manage such a feat, effectively joining the likes of Amazon and Microsoft in a race to grab a piece of the hottest technology around — infrastructure as a service?
Shelley, who spent his career before Sears leveraging data-mining and clinical research to improve medical devices for 3M and Hollister, introduced similar techniques here.
It started when Sears replaced its mainframe-based system to price and promote goods with Hadoop, an open source software framework that distributes and stores chunks of data across many servers. The system processes data quickly and cheaply because the servers share the work and the company only pays for the storage it needs at any one time.
MetaScale layers on its own analysis that can help clients’ marketing campaigns hat appeal to customers based on a variety of factors, like how to price goods based on a shoppers’ location.
“It’s about running a business faster by leveraging these (analytical) tools to crunch or store more data much faster than would be possible with traditional tools,” Shelley says.
Shelley first started using data processing at a center in the U.K. where Sir John Charnley, an orthopedic surgeon, pioneered the hip-replacement operation.
“I was thrust into this place with more than 20,000 patients, each having long histories of X-rays and paper records,” he says.
To figure out which hip implant worked best and which surgical technique was most effective, Shelley started mining data alongside clinical research.
“We started using the data to make better designs and better surgical techniques,” he says. “I’ve always been in research and product development. I like new things and doing something new on a larger scale.”
There’s no doubt Shelley will be working on a larger scale, since 42 percent of respondents to a Gartner survey of IT leaders reveal they have invested in big data technology or are planning to do so within a year.
Gartner predicts 20 percent of Global 1000 businesses will have a strategic focus on information infrastructure by 2015.
Doug Laney, a Gartner vice president of research, says MetaScale has the potential to be “highly profitable.”
“For customers, its solution is expedient, flexible and eliminates many capital expenses,” he says.
Shelley sees MetaScale and its partners, including Northbrook-based data analytics company Mu Sigma, as putting Chicago on the big-data map.
“There is no question that Chicago is seen as a big player on the scene,” Shelley says.
One example: Chicago played host to Big Data Week April 22-28, an event that connects data scientists, technologies, businesses and visualizers from throughout the world to talk about how Big Data changes everything.
Phil Shelley photo by Tom Cruze