The secret to tackling mobile, cloud and big data? Treat them as one.

There is widespread agreement—across the globe and in every industry—that mobile, big data, and cloud computing are the three cornerstone issues of tomorrow’s business environment. In fact, a strong organizational response to each of these issues is already critical to competitive survival.

As a result, CIOs, business strategists and IT leaders are working furiously to make sure their businesses have plans in place to stay ahead of these challenges. But there is one subtlety that is frequently overlooked: When it comes to mobile computing, big data and the cloud, what we have is not three problems but one.

Rising in unison

It’s not a coincidence that the profile of these three business challenges rose in parallel. Mobile, big data, and cloud are not siloed concerns easily addressed in isolation. They exist in an overlapping matrix, where the importance of each issue increases because it leverages (or helps solve) an issue raised by one of the others.

For example, in the days before mobile computing, business users typically did all their work using just a handful of applications. Today, the average smartphone has 41 apps installed on it. And each of those applications sparks a need to consider security, since it generates data each and every time it is used. And because these devices are often connected to service provider networks – rather than directly with corporate servers – a great deal of that business app data requires secure cloud storage.

Thus the proliferation of mobile devices exacerbates the big data problem, which in turn precipitates the demand for cloud.

In short, they are all part of a single, converged and symbiotic trend. And to address them optimally requires a holistic perspective on all three.

No bottom in sight

With global demand for mobile computing at the heart of this escalation, it makes sense that IT strategists would be keenly interested in the trend lines for mobile adoption. Today, 87 percent of the world’s population owns a mobile phone; 60 million Android devices were sold in the second quarter of 2012, and now 1 million new Android devices are provisioned daily, according to Google. As of last month, there were likely more smartphones on the planet than humans, according to Cisco.

So the question is whether there is a saturation point on the horizon that could help curb this cloud/mobile/data demand? Surprisingly, no. The average number of mobile devices per employee worldwide has already reached three to five, and adoption rates continue to grow as consumers add tablets and ever-more capable smartphones to their mobile arsenals.

But consumers’ ceaseless enthusiasm for new form factors and functionality is not the whole story behind the world’s bottomless demand for mobility. Today, businesses themselves – rather than consumers – are adding fuel to the fire.

Not just a BYOD issue

As industries finally crest the hump of transforming their workflows to leverage mobile device availability, they drive new demand – not only for mobile devices, but for new scalable infrastructures that deliver more actionable intelligence from their big data.

Finance Consumer banks, operators and retailers are widely deploying mobile commerce capabilities, which, in addition to automating traditional transactions, must include on-demand access to unstructured data, such as check images.

Manufacturing  Mobile devices on the factory floor automate manual processes, thereby feeding more rapid information into the system. This makes it possible to detect and respond early to issues that take a toll on quality or productivity, such as supplier errors.

Retail  Retailers are giving regional store managers mobile app access to daily and even real-time sales performance data on the floor, allowing them to optimize displays and customer service to sell more of the most popular items.

Health care Thanks to new mobile apps and devices, the details of every patient interaction is now entered into the system nearly instantaneously. This provides a basis for a more efficient and orchestrated care response, and in some cases leading to more rapid or accurate diagnoses.

The internet of things

As mobile technology embeds itself into more and more objects, vehicles, buildings, sensors and machines, the heterogeneity of actionable business information will only grow. “Annual global IP traffic will surpass the zettabyte threshold by the end of 2016,” reports Cisco. “In 2016, global IP traffic will reach 1.3 zettabytes per year or 109.5 exabytes per month.”

Smart equipment and vehicles will upload data to service provider networks as well as private networks, and organizations will need a plan to normalize data in many forms and from many sources. The scalable infrastructures we design today to store and structure such varied data are critical to the enablement of the business innovations we will need in the future.

The effect of this convergence is already apparent, especially in the area of business intelligence. Mobile business intelligence makes it possible for organizations to provide analytics on key performance metrics to a wider variety of employees – not just for executives. Once employees get a taste for how mobile apps fuel greater effectiveness in their job duties, they will push for more dashboards and more data. And these big data stores can’t be undertaken without cloud, to facilitate real-time performance, nor mobile devices and apps, to deliver data into the field where it’s put to good use.

Embracing the Entanglement

The interdependence of mobile, big data and cloud is undeniable, and will only multiply as data growth and mobile use continue. Yet our strategic thinking lags behind the evidence. As we have learned from IT revolutions of the past, a partial strategy is worse than no strategy at all, as you can end up with an inflexible, tactical implementation that requires a ‘rip and replace’ approach.

Organizations that manage to avoid a false start with a siloed strategy will create a network design better aligned with where IT will be in five years. In short, the most successful organizations recognize the secret alliance of mobile, big data and cloud early, and develop a holistic strategy considering all three in concert.

Sanjay Poonen is president and head of SAP’s mobile division. Read more of his work here, and follow him on Twitter @spoonen.

Photo courtesy of Herbert Kratky /