The big fuss over big data

There is no denying the hype that has surrounded big data over the past few years. Big data is set to revolutionise the industry, we have been told; big data will change the way in which companies do business; big data can provide organisations with superior insight into their customers’ demands and the industries in which they operate. Talk about big data has reached almost hysterical levels, and businesses are feeling more pressured than ever to involve themselves in this colossal movement.

But for all the fanfare surrounding big data, the reality is that many businesses are either unable or unwilling to invest in the technology that will help them harness it. Worldwide, only a small portion of the world’s top businesses have active big data analytics processes in play. Yes, research firms such as IDC predict a significant rise in big data analytics expenditure over the next few years, but at present, many organisations simply haven’t cottoned onto why big data is supposedly so important.

The numbers show a distinct lack of interest in big data at present, according to Aaron White, General Manager for the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey, Hitachi Data Systems. “Globally, businesses are only now starting to deploy big data to positive ends and actually using it for business insights and advantages,” he says.

“According to an IDC study that we commissioned last year, only 10 percent of senior-level IT professionals have started this process. Some 20 percent have the good intention of starting in the next 24 months. Another 10 percent flatly reject the need to do so. But the majority, nearly 60 percent, simply have no current plans.”

In the Middle East, the idea of big data has gained even less traction. But why is this? According to some, it’s because not enough has been done to really explain the benefits that big data can bring to businesses.

“As in every case, the initial doubts about big data as a strategy and concept were stemming from the fact that it was suspected as another ‘concept selling’ by IT vendors without tangible benefits to enterprises,” says Mohan Sundaram, Manager, Enterprise Infrastucture. “Added to this, a lack of unbiased research information in the public domain, a lack of clarity on what big data is, and confusion and clarity on its benefits have held back big data adoption. The most cited reason in holding back big data adoption is the cost factor.”

Mohan Sundaram, Manager, Enterprise Infrastucture

What’s more, Sundaram says, the IT expertise to handle big data is in short supply, not just in the Middle East, but all around the world. So-called data scientists are being snapped up by the world’s leading organisations, leaving little talent for everyone else.

That said, there is some evidence to suggest that regional attitudes to big data are changing, the experts say. What’s more, they say that the hype surrounding big data is not unfounded. The consensus seems to be that, with the exponential growth in the amount of data being created – IDC predicts that the digital universe will reach 40 zettabytes by 2020 – companies need to find ways of harnessing this data in order to stay ahead of the game. And some organisations are leading the way in developing solutions to do this.

The New York Stock Exchange, for example, is using IBM big data technology to store and analyse seven years of historical trading data systems, which helps to identify and investigate trading anomalies more quickly, according to Ahmed Auda, Business Unit Executive, IBM Middle East. “As a result, the company has been able to improve simplicity and performance, in turn cutting data analysis time by eight hours,” he says.

Arun Chandrasekaran, Research Director, Data Centre Infrastructure and Operations, Gartner, says that these kinds of operations are beginning to give companies an edge: “Leading-edge organisations compete by extracting insight from data. Businesses are moving from historical analysis (hindsight) to real-time analytics (insight) with increasing need for predictive analytics (foresight). Business analytics, with actionable predictive analysis, can offer a sustainable competitive advantage for businesses in today’s digital economy.”

Den Sullivan, Head of Architectures and Enterprise, Emerging Markets, Cisco, concurs: “Just as oil once fired dreams a century or more ago, data is today driving a vision of economic and technical innovation. If ‘crude’ data can be extracted, refined, and piped to where it can impact decisions in real time, its value will soar. When key insights can be mined from it through analytics—revealing complex behaviours, patterns, and events as they happen, if not before—then data will realise its inherent power.”

Habib Mahakian, Regional General Manager for the Gulf and Pakistan, EMC

However, Habib Mahakian, Regional General Manager for the Gulf and Pakistan, EMC, says that businesses’ interests in big data will depend on the types of industries that they are operating in. “Industries where the business evolves around data, such as Telecom, FSI and public sectors, have clear interest in addressing big data, whether from data analytics or from data management perspectives,” he says.

“The interest arises from the benefits they can achieve from the insights they get through data analytics, whether it is measuring customer satisfaction, maintaining customer loyalty, providing a much better customer experience, or introducing new products or services.”

If a company feels that it could benefit from harnessing big data, then, how should it go about it? According to Boby Joseph, CEO, StorIT, acquiring the right tools can be an expensive proposition for little to no return, if things aren’t done properly.

“All analytics should make business sense and should be in line with the total goal a company would want to pursue,” he says. “The purpose of all analytics software programmes is to provide the tools necessary to review programming or transaction details in a structured way. Enterprises need to consider a number of processes when selecting the best analytics software. The organisation needs to document its requirements, make a list of all the features that the programme must have and a list of the features that would be good to have. They also need to check future plans, operating systems and budgets before choosing the right analytics software.”

In terms of vendors, Joseph highlights Hadoop, EMC, Greenplum, Microsoft Polybase and Oracle Ex-Data as some of the most popular data analytics tools in the Middle East. Of course, though, the products should hardly be bought on the basis of the brands behind them; they should be acquired based on how much value the results will bring to the organisation.

What’s more, tooling up for big data need not be as costly as many CIOs may think. Many believe that being able to harness big data will require a completely new approach to the design of enterprise storage. But vendors are now offering solutions that can be integrated into existing systems, so that companies can decide how they want to use big data before investing in more advanced technologies.

“We at EMC believe the right approach is an evolution of existing enterprise storage infrastructure to allow it to cope while gradually building up the ability to deal more efficiently with big and bigger data,” says Mahakian. “As a starting point, it’s key to have a hybrid storage system, which can efficiently house a mix of Flash (aka SSD) drives and multi-terrabyte SATA drives. Next comes data de-duplication, which significantly reduces the consumed physical storage capacity by 10, 20 or even 30-fold compared to the logical data size.”

Seyed Golkar, Director, Business Solutions, Gulf Business Machines

Of course, huge steps need to be taken in order to set up the most advanced data analytics systems, but the fact that organisations can get started with more simplistic options is encouraging. Indeed, as firms realise how much useful information they can glean from big data, they should certainly begin investing more in big data technologies.

“Companies in the region are fast realising the need to fully leverage their data,” says Seyed Golkar, Director, Business Solutions, Gulf Business Machines. “Although I would steer clear of making any predictions for 2013, it is safe to say that the immediate future holds plenty of potential for big data in the Middle East.”

Stephen Fernandes, Assistant Vice-President and Head of the Middle East, Cognizant, agrees that big data’s potential is only set to grow in the Middle East this year: “The process of realising the importance of a big data strategy and learning big data technology has already begun. Some of the technologically advanced organisations are already on the path of piloting big data technology platforms and use cases and defining a strategy for big data. The potential is very good and 2013 looks promising for big data in the Middle East.”

According to the figures, the experts are right on the money. IDC says that the global big data market will grow by 40 per cent this year – around seven times as quickly as the rest of the IT industry. Whether such growth will be seen in the Middle East is anyone’s guess, but plenty of people seem to be banking on it.

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