If only we had a penny for every time we had heard a vendor, distributor or reseller note that data volumes are growing or expanding, even exploding.
This now time-worn fact, it seems, has been put through the wash yet again, and polished up to entice the channel towards what threatens to be the bandwagon of 2012: “big data”.
Does big data really offer a new business opportunity for the channel? If so, of what kind? Channelweb contacted a number of storage-focused resellers to find out what their experiences have been and what customers actually want when it comes to big data. Interestingly, none replied.
ChannelWeb’s sister website V3, with IBM, also recently polled readers on their use of the business analytics apps necessary to work with expanding data volumes, a next step from business intelligence (BI) - itself intended to dispense business insights. BI tools themselves so far appear to be suffering from lower uptake than expected. The survey asked whether readers’ firms are currently using business analytics tools.
At press time, this is how respondents had answered:
• Yes, and we’re pleased with the results 95%
• Yes, but we haven’t seen useful results yet 1%
• We have plans to roll out business analytics tools in the future 0%
• We are interested in business analytics but need more information 0%
• No, we don’t have the internal resource or skills to manage this technology 1%
• No, we don’t need analytics technology 3%
The figures are interesting, although far from conclusive - not least because it is not apparent how many people answered the question, or who they were. Clearly, though, some businesses do find business analytics tools useful. And some do not.
Data must have a purpose
Chris Gabriel, director of solutions at integrator and services provider Logicalis, says the opportunity is there but there is a danger that resellers will focus on it as being essentially about selling more storage-related offerings. There is certainly a need to store more data - often we hear statistics on how many Zettabytes and Petabytes are being consumed - but only if the data ultimately has a purpose, he says.
“I say, ‘well, that’s great, but not if you’re not using it for anything’. It is not about volume or the efficacy of storage. It’s about the efficacy of the data,” he says. “So big data is a thing that we can use potentially to make more sensible decisions and create outcomes. But in itself it does not add any value unless you do something with it.”
Yet there is a lot of hype out there, he agrees, encouraging the idea of a burgeoning opportunity that is simply there for the taking, when in fact it may take a lot more work on the part of the technology provider to even begin to harvest it.
“Part of the problem [with the big data opportunity] is that people don’t know what they want to know. And if you don’t know the question or the problem you’re trying to solve, how does your data enable that?” says Gabriel. “And in a lot of cases, figuring out that part is very difficult.”
Rather than gathering and analysing yet more of the same data, businesses may benefit much more from using and comparing different data sets, he suggests. A black-and-white photo in higher resolution does not look that different - but if you add colour, you learn a lot more about the subject.
Gabriel points to the use of statistics to fight crime as an example. New York City Police recently reaped benefits from accessing data sets that were not about crime fighting at all. “They obtained data from councils on the number and location of street light faults they were having - because that is where muggers attack and thieves target houses. That was their biggest reduction of low-level crime,” he says.
He adds that every business is searching for its own Higgs boson. “At CERN, there are particles going around and around, and massive data being created, and they want to enable that data to find the Higgs boson and, in a way, the meaning of life,” Gabriel says. “Businesses create a huge amount of data, so they need to find the meaning [of that data].”
Gartner agrees. By June the research giant was already warning that many IT leaders have focused on the data volume issue to the exclusion of other aspects of information management. Big data, Gartner writes, tends to be heavily weighted towards current issues as well - meaning its use can encourage short-sighted decision making.
“Information managers may be tempted to focus on volume alone when they are losing control of the access and qualification aspects of data at the same time. Gartner analysts warn that too narrow a focus will force massive reinvestment in two to three years to address the other dimensions of big data, Gartner wrote.
Big data opportunity could become chaos
The opportunity exists - but care must be taken to ensure the “big data opportunity does not become big data chaos, which may raise compliance risks, increase costs and create yet more silos”, the research behemoth says.
John Campbell, UK alliances director at BI tool vendor QlikTech, agrees that the key is figuring out the relevant or ‘small’ data that can relieve customer pain points. This means working very closely with the channel to help them work out how to actually help customers, and then use big data tools to achieve that.
Otherwise, big data technologies may remain a solution in search of a problem to solve. Vendors and resellers need to approach the trend from the right end - by finding out what data would really help their customers grow and improve their businesses. The right data, Campbell confirms, may in fact be a really small piece of data, or even an overlooked data set.
Only then is it time to figure out which IT tools can help the customer, and deploy them.
“It is about getting the relevant data to the relevant people at the right time. It’s like telcos and that last mile; government can be very quick to put in the infrastructure, but getting the service that last mile into people’s homes is the problem,” Campbell says.
Big data in itself would of course be overwhelming, so it must be about slicing and dicing the right bits of data in the right way, relating them to each other accurately, and analysing them carefully. This all has to fit in with what the customer actually needs to know - so that is where the channel should start, with learning about the customer’s business.
“It brings it all back to the user experience,” Campbell says. “Their first response to big data is often ‘I don’t know what to look at’ and then ‘but what does it mean?’.”
He says QlikTech does not produce a breakdown of sales by country, but it can cite Cambridge University Hospital and major banks such as RBS among its customers.
“The hospital used QlikView [BI dashboard] and created cost savings of 25 per cent bed capacity. Which is interesting, but what really excited me is that it allowed it to share best practices, which enhanced staff retention,” says Campbell.
Some words from a 2011 paper by Microsoft Research’s Danah Boyd and University of New South Wales researcher Kate Crawford, presented in September to the Oxford Internet Institute, also seem peculiarly apposite:
“There is little doubt that the quantities of data now available are indeed large, but that is not the most relevant characteristic of this new data ecosystem. Big data is notable not because of its size, but because of its relationality to other data. Due to efforts to mine and aggregate data, big data is fundamentally networked...
“[Yet] It is the kind of data that encourages the practice of apophenia: seeing patterns where none actually exist, simply because massive quantities of data can offer connections that radiate in all directions.”
Food for analysis, indeed.
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