Hackett touts big data possibilities


Is Michigan ready to become a leader in fiber optics?

That was the heart of a question posed by Jim Hackett, Steelcase Inc. director and vice chair, at the 2014 West Michigan Policy Forum.

Hackett, who led the Monday afternoon session with his presentation “Getting the Mitten to Think Big,” opened by discussing how economic growth can be born out of a kind of “highway.” For Grand Rapids, this type of growth originally occurred along the Grand River, and eventually led to the development of U.S. 131 and Interstate 96.

Since then, a new kind of highway has arisen — the digital highway.

“One thing we can agree on about our economy: It’s thrived around the river,” he said. “We have a unique opportunity to lead here in Michigan, in West Michigan, in our world, thinking about the future of the data highway.”

The growth and spread of data has come a long way since its development in the 1950s, Hackett said. The new iPhone 6 has about 128 gigabytes, more than double what a 50GB Blu-ray Disc has. When the Human Genome Project was founded, he said the project cost more than $1 billion; today, it costs $1,000, he said, adding, “The cost of storing has virtually dropped to zero.”

“Data storage costs have moved dramatically. Since 1956, this hard drive for 5 megabytes cost $50,000,” he said. “In 50 years, look what happened to our highway. The next 50 years, given Moore’s Law, it’s going to grow again and again. Every five years, the data grows at a factor of 10 times and is one-10th the cost, so it becomes cheaper and cheaper and it becomes more voluminous.”

What West Michigan needs to prepare for now is the explosive growth of super-linear information, Hackett said. Currently, Michigan’s networks carry “ping pong ball-sized” data, but it needs to prepare for “bowling ball-sized data,” he said.

To accomplish this, he proposed the state find ways to utilize two Ann Arbor-based computer-networking platforms. The first is Merit Network, a nonprofi torganization that provides high-performance computer networking and is considered one of the nation’s oldest regional computer networks. The second is Internet2, a not-for-profit computer-networking consortium.

“Our opportunity is this: We take the Merit Network, which is fiber optics; we take Internet2, which, by the way, is licensed only to universities, and we say, ‘How do we use those highways for what we need?’” he said. “And there are lots of things you can use that for. You can use it for video conferencing. You can use it for complex problems. We can do finite analysis.”

Not every state has something like Internet2 located conveniently in its backyard, Hackett said, adding that Grand Valley State University extended its reach of Internet2 to the Van Andel Institute, so that it now has “frictionless highways.”

Hackett closed with this hypothetical question: Imagine if all of West Michigan had this?

“The future makes this all available to us, and it’s up to us to lead ourselves toward that,” he said. “I want you to be able to say you are ready for big data because our state has built for the way it’s coming.”

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