Top Three Questions about Big Data

Program Director, Watson and Big Data Ecosystem Development, IBM

Below are the top three questions I hear all the time from business partners and customers alike. I will take a moment to address each one. Before I do that, however, I wanted to flash back to 1995. I was responsible for building a channel around our new e-commerce offering called Net.Commerce (today know as IBM WebSphere E-Commerce). I was meeting with a very large retailer who had thousands of brick-and-mortar stores. The person I was talking with from the company asked the following question:

“Why would I want a single store front on the web, when I already have thousands of physical storefronts?”

Remember that question – we’ll come back to it shortly.

Let's look at the top three questions surrounding big data:

1. Is big data real or is it hype?

First off, with so many strong use cases surfacing, I am hoping this question is somewhat behind us now; however, I realize for some of you that is not the case.

So, let’s look at this question from a couple of different angles. First, let’s assume for the moment big data is 50% hype. So there is a 50% short fall.

If big data is projected to provide a 20% uplift to businesses (and it is), then that 50% discount still translates to a 10% uplift. If you could improve your business by 10% in the next year or two, wouldn’t you take that step?

I would beg to differ with those people who say big data is all hype. Would so many people around the world be focusing time and money around this one area if that were the case? Venture firms are funding big data companies in a way I have not seen them fund since the early Internet days. The hiring around Hadoop is growing by leaps and bounds, in what many still call a down economy.

What other signs do I look at? Let me answer that with a question first.

What do these four technologies have in common (GPS, the Internet, cell phones and jet propulsion)? They were all started/created by the U.S. Department of Defense. Why is that important? Because DoD has a proven track record of recognizing the importance of key technologies, and guess what – they have fully embraced big data.

I know you are now saying, “But Bruce, big data is new. I am still not sure about it.”

The truth is big data is not new. Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, ebay and others have been using big data for years, since 2004 (MapReduce). So the fact that those major players have been successful using this technology is yet another proof point of the validity of this thing we call big data.

Now let’s look at it from a scientific point of view. Most of you have heard of the famous equation e = mc2. Where e = energy and m = mass. Rewritten m = e/c2. So with all of the energy (resources) being applied to big data it will generate big mass (massive opportunities, solutions and productivity).

I could go on and on around this front, but to net it out, big data is here to stay and having an impact already. There are many implementations of big data out there and thousands more in the pipeline. Below is just one example: 


2. How do I use big data?

Many people seem to be getting hung up on this very point. Because of the scope of problems big data can address, I could argue this is a non-issue. Let me discuss an example to explain in more detail why I make this statement.

This example is around the cell phone. Having lived in South Florida back in the day, I was able to get the first handheld cell phone from Motorola. Someone asked me why I had gotten it.

Answers could have been:

  • I wanted it for business
  • It seemed cool to have
  • This way my girlfriend could always reach me

However, the answer I gave was because it is the future. I for one do not like playing catch up. Why do it if you do not have to? I embraced early on what I could see as very important technology. Now of course, your average 10-year-old carries a cell phone. 

The same is true today for big data – it is not so important what your first use case is but rather getting starting with big data today, so you are prepared for many uses in the future and not playing catch up.

The other advice around big data usage – start with a small project, you do not need to build Rome overnight. Work backwards; find a business problem you are trying to solve and apply the technology and data sets against it.

Oh, yes before I forget, below are some common use cases:


3. Why do I want to use big data?

Gartner predicts that “big data will deliver transformational benefits to enterprises within 2 to 5 years, and by 2015 will enable enterprises adopting this technology to outperform competitors by 20% in every available financial metric.”

Unfortunately, many people/entities in both public and private sector will not see these benefits. Why, you ask? For the typical reasons:

  • Lack of execution (i.e. can not make up their minds if big data is real)
  • The “we will wait until big data is perfected” (News Alert: technology is never perfected, but it is very useable and productive even in the early stages)
  • The need to create the ultimate big data solution (i.e. the five-year project that took 10 years to develop)

What are the benefits of big data?

There are two major benefits.

  1. Through big data exploration and discovery, you can solve complex problems and gain insight never thought possible
  2. Speed

The first one is about big data being game-changing technology. It will be the technology used to solve “Big World Problems,” and that work is under way today. The second item is so important, but rarely talked about in regards to big data. When is the last time you heard someone say any of the following:

  • My laptop is too fast, I wish someone could slow it down
  • The download only took 2 seconds, I am bummed
  • I needed an answer ASAP, but I got it too fast

The net is - most people want speed in almost all cases. Why?

Speed is a key element of productivity. Everyone wants to be more productive. Speed is also required in mission-critical use cases like in the medical field, where getting a diagnoses back in 1 day vs. 1 week can mean life or death. Below is an example of a use case involving streaming computing. How can you not like those results?

Why do you want to use big data? You need to figure that out for yourself, but my advice is do not wait too long to come to a conclusion – neither your competition nor society at-large is waiting.

If you want to be better connected into the whole big data scene and learn more about how people are thinking about and using big data, please feel free to join this LinkedIn group.

But let’s end this story where it started back in 1995, when I was meeting with that large retailer who had thousands of brick-and-mortar stores and my contact asked, “Why would I want a single storefront on the web, when I already have thousands of physical storefronts?”

If you have to ask that question in regards to big data, you will not be the next Amazon.