Big Data: Size isn’t everything

Big Data has a big problem; it’s the word “Big”. These days, a quick Google search will uncover terabytes of negative opinion about the futility of relying on huge volumes of data to produce magical, meaningful insight. There are also many clichéd but correct assertions about the difficulties of correlation versus causation, in massive data sets. In reading some of these pieces, I begin to understand how climatologists must feel when people complain ironically about “global warming” during snowfall.

Big Data has a name problem. There is a lot more to it than size. Shape, Speed, and…err…Veracity are also key elements (now I understand why Gartner and the gang went with V’s instead of S’s).

The need to handle data of different shapes (Variety) is not new. Data developers have always had to mold strange-shaped data into our reporting systems, integrating with semi-structured sources, and even straying into full-text searching. However, what we lacked was an easy way to add semi-structured and unstructured data to our arsenal. New “Big Data” tools such as MongoDB, and other NoSQL (Not Only SQL) databases, or a graph database like Neo4J, fill this gap. Still, to many, they simply introduce noise to the clean signal that is their sensibly normalized data structures.

What about speed (Velocity)? It’s not just high frequency trading that generates data faster than a single system can handle. Many other applications need to make trade-offs that traditional databases won’t, in order to cope with high data insert speeds, or to extract quickly the required information from data streams.

Unfortunately, many people equate Big Data with the Hadoop platform, whose batch driven queries and job processing queues have little to do with “velocity”. StreamInsight, Esper and Tibco BusinessEvents are examples of Big Data tools designed to handle high-velocity data streams. Again, the name doesn’t do the discipline of Big Data any favors. Ultimately, though, does analyzing fast moving data produce insights as useful as the ones we get through a more considered approach, enabled by traditional BI?

Finally, we have Veracity and Value. In many ways, these additions to the classic Volume, Velocity and Variety trio acknowledge the criticism that without high-quality data and genuinely valuable outputs then data, big or otherwise, is worthless. As a discipline, Big Data has recognized this, and data quality and cleaning tools are starting to appear to support it. Rather than simply decrying the irrelevance of Volume, we need as a profession to focus how to improve Veracity and Value. Perhaps we should just declare the ‘Big’ silent, embrace these new data tools and help develop better practices for their use, just as we did the good old RDBMS?

What does Big Data mean to you? Which V gives your business the most pain, or the most value? Do you see these new tools as a useful addition to the BI toolbox, or are they just enabling a dangerous trend to find ghosts in the noise?

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