The rise of Big Data – what it means for the enterprise

Big Data is here to stay - so how do we use it for fun and profit?

A few years ago, the idea of big data was still alien to many IT professionals. In fact, its key concepts of volume, variety and velocity were only identified in 2001 – and for many years after that, there was still very little understanding of exactly how best to harness this potential – or indeed what it could be for a business.

But all this has changed. In just a short space of time, the technology has gone from being an untried theory, through the age of hype and uncertainty, to the point where it now needs to be a key consideration for all IT managers when planning their firm’s strategy.

The growing awareness

In fact, Google Trends reveals that between 2004 and 2011, interest in the term ‘big data’, as measured by the number of queries, remained static. However, from 2012 to 2014, searches for the phrase jumped more than tenfold.

Several concurrent developments in the tech world are likely to have contributed to this explosion of interest. This has included the much greater amount of unstructured data available – ranging from tweets to Facebook photo uploads – that can provide invaluable information to businesses, but are hard to categorise and evaluate using traditional analytics tools.

At the same time, developments in data storage technology mean it has become much more feasible for businesses to retain vast quantities of data. Where once a firm might measure its information volume in gigabytes or occasionally terabytes, it is now possible to store and analyse petabytes worth of data for comparable costs.

A key opportunity for business

As a result of this, a vast array of technologies to take advantage of this have been made available in the last couple of years and there are many use cases to which organisations can put this technology. Some of these were highlighted recently by a report commissioned by the White House.

The study, led by counselor to president Barack Obama John Podesta, noted the technology is already saving lives. He highlighted one instance where big data technology has been employed by a neonatal intensive care unit to monitor tiny changes in newborn babies’ condition through the study of millions of data points. This enables it to pick up on early signs of infection that would almost certainly be missed by doctors.

In other sectors, big data is also being used by utilities companies to forecast periods of high demand, allowing them to make their electricity networks more efficient and reduce the risk of brownouts, while sensor data in jet engines and delivery trucks can closely monitor their operations and send automatic alerts when maintenance is required.

Retailers can also use big data analytics to provide a much more thorough picture of their customers, in order to offer them more personalised offers and marketing materials, provide them with suggestions based on their location, and much more.

With so many possibilities afforded to companies across all industries by big data, being able to harness it effectively can be a key differentiator that sets the best-performing businesses apart from their rivals. The right technology will be central to this, so firms need to investigate what big data solutions are available.