How To Weather The Big Data Storm

Duncan MacRae is former editor and now a contributor to TechWeekEurope. He previously edited Computer Business Review's print/digital magazines and CBR Online, as well as Arabian Computer News in the UAE.

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Brian Gentile, senior vice president and general manager, TIBCO Analytics, explains how to get the most out of the big data boom

If you look at the field of business intelligence, it’s as though there’s a storm brewing. If you wanted to be fanciful, you’d say that it’s made up of big data, which is information at a far deeper level than ever been imagined (information that can be shared on a device no bigger than a paperback book) and cloud computing, that can give more people scalable, affordable access to that information than ever before. And it’s how your organisation weathers this storm that will determine how well it’s able to face the future.

Big data is a phenomenon that has been around for a while and potentially allows a company to know more about their customers than ever before. They know what their habits are, whether they’re likely to shop around for different products or services, and a range of other things that may not seem relevant but could hold a series of keys to how to do better business.

Helping you do your job

This creates an analytical picture that helps people to do their jobs and creates a differential advantage for the savvy organisation ready to put more data to work. Just think about TrackX – an asset tracking and supply chain solution that uses RFID tags, barcodes and sensor technology to help manage physical assets. If there’s a bottleneck, TrackX helps them identify where it is and takes remedial action. Anyone in the company has access to that information and can act on it. The value of such broad access can’t be overestimated.

big data stormA report by IDG, the International Data Group, shows that over 42% of users have identified big data applications as being in the top five areas of big data investment and just as importantly, 70% of enterprise organisations will deploy or have already begun big data-related projects. They plan to spend, on average, about £5 million each, so we are likely on the cusp of a major boom.

What we’re looking at here doesn’t just need to be customer data. Google Glass has gained a lot of coverage in the press and been derided by a lot of people, but the idea of wearable computing isn’t going to go away. You’re going to have people able to access information, from movies to business analytics wherever they are. The smart phone has already dynamited the idea that you have to be in the office to have access to useful information, whether it’s about business or about a scientific project that you’re working on. Now, big data plus the cloud and additionally wearable technology is bringing that much further forward.

When people speculate about where this is likely to go, it’s just that – speculation. In the same way that people who used rotary dial telephones could never have predicted how smart phones and tablet computers would seemingly come from nowhere to be leading the current cusp of computing, we can’t fully see how big data is going to affect us. Right now, we’re just scratching the surface and the chances are that nobody can see the applications that are going to carry it forward or the ways that it will be used. That’s worth bearing in mind if anyone tells you that they can see into the future with any clarity – they can’t.

Right now, big data projects are using cloud technology to propel them forward. Some recent events, not least the Snowden revelations, have made people wary about allowing their information to be held outside of their personal control, let alone by American providers. Experts have estimated that billions of pounds have been invested in cloud computing by companies such as Deutsche Telekom and France Telecom, suggesting that there is an important regional divide.

Despite these reservations, revenues from cloud computing are rising all the time. One estimate has projected them to reach around $100 billion by 2017. Amazon Web Services, better known as AWS, are also one of the key providers. Their clients include companies such as NASA, the Obama campaign, Netflix and the CIA, so this is more than just a momentary fad.

Nobody knows

Just like big data, nobody knows exactly what applications will be developed to capitalise on the cloud, or at what level. In the cloud, people are storing music and addresses. In time, the idea that we used to employ significant local storage and computing power for any business application will seem bizarre, as the cloud manages more computing tasks from end-to-end.

Finally, there is the information itself. Any suite of analytic applications will only be as accurate as the data fed into it, and can only be useful if the products of that data are in the hands of people who are able to interpret it and apply their findings. This is why the mobile device is now one of the most useful tools available for any person or business. Using a phone or tablet, allied to a cloud application, can give you access to reports and other data wherever you are and allow you to make real-time decisions.

Estimates reveal that more than half of businesses will rely on mobile devices for insight delivery by 2015, but there is a yawning gap between intentions and implementation before the handheld revolution realises its potential. A report by Gartner revealed that 85% of business users believe that having remote access to business intelligence tools was important, but only 8% were actually deploying them. Remote access to BI tools is a great way to improve operations and revenue that people are being very slow to exploit.

There is a clear way forward for businesses who have the foresight and pragmatism to realise it. Big data will be applied to solve business problems using cloud software to open up access, allowing individual users to read and input data on their mobile device. Bound up in that template for the immediate future is the fact that almost every employee will need to be able to work with data in order to make their work environment as efficient as it can be. The risks of being caught out in the storm are great, but the benefits of capitalising on it are huge.