Bringing Big Data into Focus

Two trends to watch this year in big data.

What does "big data" mean to your organization? Although the expression itself has been part of our industry's buzz for years, I still find that in conversations with business and data professionals, responses frequently begin with false starts, head scratches, and sometimes a pass, turning it back with "Well, what do you think it means?"

Some even shy away from using the expression; a data architect at a healthcare provider told me that "There's no way we will ever have big data," even as he described the firm's startling diversity in data types. Another professional, a VP of IT at a retail organization, said she avoids the term because "upper management gets too excited" and apparently loses the ability to have a rational conversation about technology strategy.

The meaning of "big data" remains hard to pin down, and perhaps this will always be so because it describes what lies beyond the known limits of an organization's information technology implementations. Why are the limits there? It could be due to inadequacies in technology, skill sets, funding, data architecture, all of the above, or even none of the above.

Often, one of the biggest barriers is business leaders' inability to wrap their minds around the significance of big data to their organization's current objectives, business models, customer relationships, or their bottom line. Despite the unending proliferation of books, magazines articles, movies (e.g., "Moneyball"), and other media devoted to big data topics, many business executives remain confused. In a conversation struck up at an airport recently, a business executive from a trucking firm rather rhetorically asked me, "Since we are not in the information business, why should I care about 'big data'?" His question prompted an interesting discussion, but as he drained his beer and headed off to the plane, he still seemed mystified by all the attention paid to big data.

Thus, to the familiar three "Vs" of big data discussions (volume, variety, and velocity), it is important to add a fourth: value. How will big data enable the organization to do more than it does now, in such a significant way that investment in technology and practices is merited? Can business and technology professionals together articulate the value of such investment? Finding answers to these questions is not easy, but they are vital to sustaining interest and reaching the objectives of big data technology investment.

"Big Data Tipping Point" is the theme of the next TDWI World Conference, to be held May 5-10 in Chicago. In the conference's keynotes and educational sessions, connecting technology practices to the business value of big data will be a cornerstone topic. Monday's keynote, "Preparing for the Practical Realities of Big Data," will be delivered by Ken Rudin, head of analytics at Facebook. Ken's extensive experience at the leading edge in databases, data mining, and analytics enables him to articulate well the business value of establishing a "proactive, data-driven culture," as he describes it. Sessions during the rest of the week by a variety of experts will address critical technology issues such as Hadoop and how to integrate analytic platforms with the rest of the data architecture as well as how to describe, in human terms, the potential of big data to the business.

Two Big Data Trends

Briefly, here are two trends to watch in big data, which will be part of the discussion in sessions and networking events throughout the week in Chicago.

Trend #1: The unity is near

One of the dominant themes this year among analytic database and data warehouse providers is the development of a comprehensive, "unified" data architecture that brings it all together: Hadoop, in-memory systems, data virtualization, data warehouses, and more. Many vendors are referencing Gartner analysts' recent definition of a "logical data warehouse" that "combines the strengths of traditional repository warehouses with alternative data management and access strategy." To paraphrase the futurist Raymond Kurzweil, is "the unity" near? Experts at the TDWI World Conference will provide a clear sense of how far we've come and how far we have to go.

Trend #2: Shorter decision cycles demand agile analytics

"Agility" in development methods for business intelligence and data warehousing systems is a hot topic. Organizations need to reduce delays and improve productivity in development without paying a price in quality. The TDWI World Conference will feature expert sessions on agile methods. A major driver behind agile implementation is the need to meet "shorter decision cycles"; TDWI Research finds that this is one of the most disruptive challenges facing BI and data warehouse architects. It is fueling interest as well in technologies for decision management, operational intelligence, and complex event processing. In Chicago, experts will be discussing how to improve agility with new technologies and methods to meet the demands of shorter decision cycles.

There are more than two trends to name but for now I will stop there. We look forward to seeing everyone in Chicago as TDWI devotes attention to big data and how to align technologies with business objectives. Keep an eye on the tweets (on Twitter, #TDWI), blogs, and more discussion the event will generate. If nothing else, the insights may come in handy at the airport if you find yourself in conversation with an executive who doesn't believe he's in the "information" business.

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