Zero Latency: Wait-less Computing

The wordsmiths and analysts of the Gartner Group recently coined a phrase that they believe describes the most important computing trend for the next decade: zero latency. Webster’s Dictionary defines latent as "present or potential, but not visible or apparent." And "latent" exactly describes the majority of data in the typical enterprise: captured, logged and stored, but invisible to those who could benefit from access to the information. The Zero Latency Enterprise (ZLE) is not about storing data in yet another database, but about immediately moving information to the various players who need it.

Internet shopping has shown us the tip of the ZLE iceberg. You browse to find an item, check stock, fill out an electronic order form and submit the form for processing. In more advanced systems, you receive an immediate e-mail acknowledgment of the order, as well as a confirmation e-mail when your order is shipped. This interactive model works pretty well for the average consumer, but it scales poorly when used for high-volume business processes.

For business, a more productive version of the same scenario should involve more cooperation between IT infrastructures. A company’s purchasing system, for example, could allow employees to initiate Purchase Orders (PO) directly from their browsers. The system can then request quotes on the ordered items from an Internet pool of suppliers. The POs and bids are automatically routed to the designated employee for approval. Once approved, the orders are placed electronically to the chosen suppliers. The status of the pending orders are sent back electronically, not as an unstructured e-mail, but as an intelligent message that can be used to update the local purchasing database. All the while, employees waiting for their purchases are notified about status changes on their particular orders.

Universal order processing is one of the simplest examples of reducing latency inherent in today’s business communications. Airlines and event promoters have to keep information latency short, or their reservation systems will fail altogether. In general, the availability of timely information makes intelligent resource planning decisions possible. Rather than relying solely on forecasting with a murky crystal ball, a ZLE can continuously adjust resources on the basis of real-time inputs. Since the information infrastructure of a ZLE is able to respond to dynamic changes in resource requirements, effectively bartering of resources such as manufacturing capacity might become a key ingredient to having a responsive zero latency business. Fortunately, zero latency can also help a business to effectively buy and sell excess resource capacity as the business’ needs fluctuate.

Although the buzzword is new, zero latency -- or at least reduced latency -- has been the goal of IT since the beginning. Making census data available while it was still worthwhile was the major impetus for the first computers. The technologies needed for true zero latency systems, however, have only recently become available:

A worldwide network-- To achieve zero latency, our businesses and partners have to be linked. The public Internet provides the proof, if not the vehicle, for globally interconnected businesses. While security and performance issues remain, the question is no longer "Can we all get connected?" but "What method shall we choose to get connected?"

A standard language for messages-- Determining the right way in which to interchange information has historically been a stumbling block for electronic business communication. Enter Extensible Markup Language (XML), which may well be the most quickly adopted technology in computing history. XML provides a simple, robust and human-readable method for describing any content. XML also allows industries to create domain-specific templates. Insurance companies, for example, can standardize the mark-up tags for all claim information.

Message-oriented middleware-- Because of the scope of zero latency enterprises, the likelihood of encountering one or more unavailable systems increases. Traditional two- and three-tier applications falter when the target databases aren’t up and running. Message-oriented middleware enables asynchronous communication, ensuring that the information is delivered as soon as offline resources are restored.

The technical pieces are in place for what the Gartner Group believes to be the next digital revolution. While Gartner’s prediction that zero latency will be the key technology for the next decade seems to ignore how quickly the technological landscape changes, zero latency is definitely the focus of cutting-edge companies today. Just imagine the slogan we can use for the business Internet of the future: One billion computers, no waiting. --Eric Binary Anderson is a Development Manager at PeopleSoft's PeopleTools division (Pleasanton, Calif.) and has his own consulting business, Binary Solutions. Contact him at